Though it is not a requirement in the field of ophthalmology, becoming a certified ophthalmic assistant, technician or medical technologist can be very beneficial to one’s career. As many individuals from all career fields are keeping a close eye on the job market, I will analyze the current employment trends for ophthalmic medical personnel as a certified technician and contrast the market with my experience prior to certification. The field of ophthalmology, similar to the testing for certification, can be challenging yet rewarding and I strongly feel that certification helps us land the jobs that want for better pay.
Ophthalmic medical technicians and technologists (OMTs), or the assistants to eye doctors and surgeons who check vision, aid in medical procedures and perform special testing, are not legally required to be certified to work in the field. The Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO) has three attainable ranks based on time in practice and knowledge: certified ophthalmic assistant (COA), certified ophthalmic technician (COT) and certified ophthalmic technologist (COMT). According to “Ophthalmic Technologist Salary Trends”, a certified assistant, technician or medical technologist can earn up to $10,000 more than their uncertified counterparts annually¹. As one may expect, the higher the rank of certification, the higher the annual salary potential; OphthalmicTechnician.org reports that in 2015, ATPO surveyed certified ophthalmic personnel and found that, on average, OMTs made $45, $55 and $67 thousand a year, depending on¹.
Of course, the variation of pay for OMTs can be caused by several factors. Assistants, technicians and medical technologists with more experience typically receive a higher rate of pay than those with less. Personnel with more responsibilities also tend to earn more than OMTs with fewer duties¹. As a COT, I feel that these surveys are misleading; with my decade long experience in the field, I have seen less than a handful of jobs open up that offer compensation anywhere near these numbers. The respondents from the ATPO survey have an average of 20 years of experience in the field of ophthalmology and most respondents have been with their current employers for more than a decade, leaving them with a higher earning potential, as they have most likely had many raises over the years¹. These salaries are potentially attainable as an OMT, but a tech looking for a new job has minimal hope of earning a salary this high unless they are seeking an office management position.
Coastal regions and major metropolitan areas often pay higher than offices inland and/ or rural areas, but this is not always the case¹. Many of my friends and former co-workers continue to work within the State of Delaware as an OMT, certified or not, but make less than half of the US average salary of COAs—the technicians with the entry level of certification, even though the state is coastal. Previously, I found myself earning significantly less than most other personnel from around the country even though we live in a coastal area. Fortunately, Philadelphia, PA is a large city within traveling distance from Delaware where not one but two leading eye hospitals call home. Wills Eye Hospital and the Scheie Eye Institute both offer competitive wages for their employees but encourage (or require) certification to work within their practices. As a former uncertified tech at Wills Eye and a current COT at Scheie, I know firsthand how traveling 45 minutes to work every day consumes a great deal of time that could be spent on other things. On a positive note, I know that it is more than worth the time for the difference in compensation- I work less than 30 miles from home but earn almost double my previous wage. In a year I went from job hunting and barely making ends meet to doubling my salary with headhunters from competitors clogging my email inbox with job offers, not solely because of the work experience but also because of the series of post nominal letters that follow my name. Certification and the willingness to travel for a better wage are definitely worth the daily train rides.
The three levels of ophthalmic certification, (COA, COT and COMT), are thought of as relevant to a practice, as the individuals that hold these ranks tend to be more serious about their careers and require continuing education to maintain their certs. Dr. Robert Kershner, MD, MS, FACS, and ophthalmologist in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida writes in his article, “A Doctor’s perspective on Staff Certification”, (2015), that physicians prefer certified personnel over uncertified for two main reasons: education and reassurance. The certifying body for OMTs, JCAHPO, has benchmarks in place to ensure that staff members are knowledgeable and meet different professional criteria. Having the rank of COA, COT and COMT assures both patients and doctors that their staff is more than competent and responsible². Large-scale regional eye care practices tend to prefer certified OMTs, as decorated staff helps hold up the image of the doctors. Smaller private practices may appreciate certification, as a knowledgeable staff improves patient care, but the office may not be able to compensate the same way a medical group or hospital can. With history in both private practices and hospital settings, I believe that hospitals have better benefits for employees but the openings for these offices are typically rare. Private practices have a higher turn around for OMTs but typically pay less and offer limited incentives.
Many career fields, medical included, have seen ups and downs over the past 20 years with downsizing, lay-offs and closures. Medicine has been one of the more economy resistant career paths and ophthalmology proves that. Dr. Kershner notes that the American Academy of Ophthalmology reports a “critical shortage of ophthalmic medical personnel and predicts that this shortage will get worse as the population ages and the demand for ophthalmic care increases”². With an aging population, more patients will need cataract surgeries, lasers for glaucoma and injections for macular degeneration. The exams by JCAHPO may be difficult, take years to study for and cost money to maintain, but ophthalmic staff members reap in far more than they sow once they have taken the initiative and become certified. Whether certified or not, the need for ophthalmic medical personnel is expanding and more jobs will surface, but becoming certified is an relatively guaranteed way to ensure that one has the job that they deserve.
- “Ophthalmic Technician Salary Trends.” Ophthalmictechnician.org, ophthalmictechnician.org/index.php/salary/84-ophthalmic-technician-salary-trends.
- Kershner, Robert M. “A Doctor’s Perspective on Staff Certification.” Ophthalmic Professional, vol. 4, no. March 2015, 1 Mar. 2015, pp. 24–25.