EYEING THE FUTURE
Words by Doris Cortes Delgado/Photograph by John Emerson
f you’re straining to read the first six letters on the eye chart, it could spell the possibility of a serious vision problem. Obviously, eye health is crucial to almost every facet of life and visits to the ophthalmologist can prove to be sight-saving.
But who is the person who takes your medical history, chats with you about your concerns, administers eye medications, does some of the basic testing, lines up instruments and equipment, and assists your ophthalmologist? Is he a nurse? Is she a physician assistant or an intern? Most likely, she’s an ophthalmic assistant — who may very well have been trained at UMDNJ-New Jersey Medical School’s highly regarded Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences.
Think you might be interested in this line of work? First and foremost, get yourself a job in an ophthalmologist’s office. If you like the work, then your next step could be applying to UMDNJ’s Ophthalmic Medical Assistant Program in Newark, which will prepare you to earn your certification. Just 20 sessions long, scheduled for four hours on consecutive Wednesdays — when many physicians’ offices are closed — and currently costing a total of $975, which includes texts, the program provides a fast-track to preparing for national certification by the Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology (JCAHPO). While certification is not required to work in an ophthalmology office, it does provide an edge in the hiring process and staying employed.
“This course of study is a collaboration between our program and the ophthalmic community,” says Barbara F. Churchill, COT, director of Ophthalmic Allied Health Programs at the Institute of Ophthalmology and Visual Science, who is also an alum of the program. “Students come to us once a week and then go back to their offices where they receive a minimum of three more hours training each week.”
The program has successfully prepared ophthalmic assistants since 1972. “Most courses of this type require students to stop working in order to train and attain this certification,” she says, “but working with a mentor-ophthalmologist is an integral part of our program.”
Evelyn Whaley, a recent graduate of the program, worked for a glaucoma and cataract specialist in private practice for eight years, but had not earned her certification. She heard about the program through a co-worker, who was hired to work in the Ophthalmology Department at NJMS in 2008. One year later, she contacted Whaley about a job opening there.
“I was hired in June of 2009 and started the classes in September,” she says. “It was perfect for me. I basically continued my assigned work schedule, but went to classes on Wednesdays from 9 to 1.”
In addition to preparing students for certification, the course helps them expand their clinical skills and knowledge. “The sponsoring ophthalmologist must sign an agreement to provide a minimum of three hours each week answering questions and giving the student training in conjunction with what he is learning that week,” Churchill explains.
“The classes were challenging and I learned a lot, but since I was already familiar with a lot of the terminology and equipment, it wasn’t too bad,” Whaley says. Students are expected to master the ophthalmic assistant skills necessary in such areas as: history taking and visual acuity, anatomy and physiology of the eye, examination of the eye, ophthalmic patient services and ocular emergencies, introduction to diseases of the eye, the eye in systemic disease, CPR, basic optics, pharmacology, basics of contact lenses, and low vision aids. Some of the lectures are presented by NJMS physicians.
Whaley earned her certification in June 2010. In order to maintain certification, she must take 18 continuing education credits within three years. She continues to learn on the job and sees a lot of eye problems that are not usually seen in a private office. “The work is very interesting,” she says, “especially the trauma that comes in. What touches me is when I see eye injuries of abused babies. It’s so sad.”
“Many patients who come to an ophthalmologist’s office have no knowledge about what’s going on with their eyes,” she continues. “I feel good knowing that the course I took on ocular diseases helps me to educate patients so that they can better manage their ocular conditions. I would absolutely recommend this program.”