The aging population will likely increase the need for individuals in these careers for the next few decades, according to the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO), a national organization that offers continuing education and certification.

There are three levels within ophthalmic assisting, with ophthalmic assistant being the most basic, followed by ophthalmic technician and ophthalmic technologist (most advanced), all of whom may work in a clinic and surgery assisting an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating eye diseases and disorders, and performing eye surgery.

Specialty Areas

Workers may specialize in assisting at surgery, working with ultrasound technology, pediatrics or photography. Ophthalmic assistants may also help low-vision or blind patients, fit contact lenses or glasses, or work in billing or Medicare reimbursements, according to Michelle Kimbrough, certification manager for JCAHPO (

"The major way that people come into the profession is through on-the-job training," says Lynn Anderson, chief executive officer of JCAHPO. Students may take independent study courses through JCAHPO or the American Academy of Ophthalmology (, and after working at an ophthalmologist's office for six months, sit for the certification examination administered by JCAHPO to become a certified ophthalmic assistant (COA). More work experience is required for on-the-job trained COAs to sit for higher levels of certification.

Once certified at one of the three basic levels, those who work in an operating room with an ophthalmologist for 18 months may sit for the certifying exam in surgical assisting, Kimbrough says. There are other certifications available, such as registered ophthalmic ultrasound biometrist and certified diagnostic ophthalmic sonographer. "Some people get certified in both because it does give them that additional knowledge," she adds. "You can do them independently."

Education Close To Home

The Twin Cities has two academic programs in ophthalmic assisting. Regions Hospital School of Ophthalmic Medical Technology (,1640,13258,00.html) in St. Paul opened in 1966 and trains students to become ophthalmic medical technologists. The College of St. Catherine Henrietta Schmoll School of Health has had an ophthalmic technician program at its Minneapolis campus since 2006 (

Members of the first graduating class from the two-year program at St. Catherine all got jobs immediately and some had more than one job offer despite the economy, reports Aaron Shukla, director of the program.

"This career is so immense and the opportunities are so great," says Kimbrough. "Giving the gift of sight is extremely rewarding."

Laura French is principal of Words Into Action, Inc., and is a freelance writer from Roseville.