How to Become an Optometric Assistant

When it comes to eye and vision care, a broad array of professionals can be involved. Some, like ophthalmologists—medical doctors who are qualified to diagnose disease and perform complex surgical and medical treatments on the eyes—require a very significant time commitment when it comes to their education and training. If you’re passionate about helping people get the most out of their vision, but don’t want to undertake up to eight years of training and education, then you might want to consider becoming an optometric assistant.

Optometric assistants can also be referred to as paraopticians, optometric technicians or optician assistants. They are not physician assistants, who are medical professionals that help full-fledged medical doctors such as ophthalmologists.  Rather, optometric assistants support opticians—the people who fit eyeglasses and contact lenses for patients—and optometrists—eye doctors who can examine the eyes and can diagnose and treat a wide variety of eye problems.

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Day to day, optometric assistants are responsible for much of the work that enables the smooth and efficient operation of a vision clinic or optometrist’s practice. This can be anything from appointment tracking to billing and ordering to cleaning. Depending on their level of skills and qualifications, optometric assistants may also be involved in assessments of eye health and vision, operation of specialist tools and answering patient questions.

Requirements for Becoming an Optometric Assistant

The profession of optometric assisting is not strictly regulated at a federal or state level, but all employers hiring optometric assistants will be looking to hire applicants who have a high school or general equivalency diploma.

Due to the nature of the work, which is extremely varied and at times quite specialized, applicants who can demonstrate strong organizational skills, reliable attention to detail, the capacity to multitask and good interpersonal skills will have an advantage. It’s also important to remember that because optometric assistants may be working with vulnerable people and handling sensitive patient data in a clinical setting, drug screening and a criminal background check may be required.

While some vision clinics are willing to hire people without previous experience in the field of eye and vision care, offering on-the-job training, the norm is to hire people who have a nationally recognized certification in optometric assisting.

Certification to Become an Optometric Assistant

The American Optometric Association offers four certification levels to people wishing to become optometric assistants:

  • The entry-level certification, Certified Paraoptometric (CPO), is designed for people who have worked in the eye care field for at least six months and want a nationally recognized credential to indicate their skills and experience. To get this certification, applicants need to fill out a form attesting to their experience (if currently employed in eye care, the employer should sign) and take a proctored written exam.

  • The intermediate-level certification, Certified Paraoptometric Assistant (CPOA), is available to people who have worked at least six months as a CPO and have successfully completed an approved training course within the last five years and pass a proctored written exam. If you have worked in the eye care field for three years (your employer must attest to this), you can bypass the step of certifying as an entry-level CPO and qualify to test for the CPOA certification.

  • The advanced-level certification, Certified Paraoptometric Technician (CPOT), is available to people who have worked for at least six months as a CPOA, and have successfully completed a training course approved by the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education. They must also pass an exam in two parts, a proctored written exam and a clinical examination.

  • The AOA also offers certification to optometric assistants who specialize in medical coding, the complex processes involved in processing optometric billing claims for insurance companies. To earn this certification, applicants must have a high school or equivalent diploma, attest to two years of experience in optometric coding, and pass a proctored exam.

The written exams are offered by private testing company Prometric and can be scheduled and paid for online. There is a significant fee to take the exam—for example, the CPO exam costs $285 as of 2021—but this fee is sometimes covered by your employer or training program.

The AOA provides an extremely comprehensive and regularly updated handbook for certification candidates, which answers most questions that applicants may have. The handbook explains important information such as eligibility requirements, fees—including charges for changing your exam date—and the requirements for continuing education and recertification. Continuing education and recertification helps you keep up to date with the latest technology and good practice in the field, and gives employers assurance that your skill set is current.

See this page for more information on CPO, CPOA and CPOT Certification

Training Programs for Optometric Assistants

While there are only a handful of US programs specifically approved by the AOA, remote-based study is available at one of them. The full list is available at the AOA webpage for paraoptometric certification.

There are also many optometric assistant programs, ranging from a short diploma-level course to a two-year associate’s degree, available at universities and community colleges across the US. Successful completion of these programs can improve employability and compensation for aspiring optometric assistants, but it is always advantageous to hold a widely recognized professional certification. If possible, passing an AOA-approved program and obtaining an AOA certification may be the most effective way to maximize professional opportunities.

By way of an example, here is some information about one of the AOA-approved programs that is available online:

  • Based in Madison, Wisconsin, the Madison Area Technical College offers in-person and online versions of its optometric assistant training program. While both programs have 27 credits of coursework and cost around $4500, the online program, designed for professionals already working in eye care, is completed part-time over four semesters. The in-person program is completed over nine months. For the online-based program, you’ll need to secure a qualified mentor who can supervise and evaluate your proficiency at clinical tasks. You’ll learn a variety of essential skills and concepts including ocular anatomy and physiology, how to select the right frames, lenses and contact lenses for patients, and practice management. The program is also eligible for means-based financial aid.

Here is an example of one of the in-person AOA-accredited courses for optometric assistants:

  • Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Community College of Philadelphia offers a proficiency certificate in optometric and ophthalmic assisting. As well as assisting optometrists, the graduates of this program can assist ophthalmologists, fully trained medical doctors who are qualified to offer surgical and medical treatment of the eyes. Ophthalmic assistants can take patient histories, perform pre-testing and follow-up testing for patients, and a variety of other clinical tasks—and because the course is accredited by the AOA, graduates can also assist optometrists. The in-person course offers extensive hands-on clinical and laboratory experience to students. State and federal financial aid are available.

Job Outlook and Salary Expectations for Optometric Assistants

There is no specific breakdown for optometric assistants on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website, but there is information for a comparable field: medical assisting. The year 2020 median pay is reported to have been $17.23 per hour, or a bit under $36,000 per year.

Between 2019 and 2029, the number of roles for medical assistants is expected to grow by nearly one-fifth across the country, which is much, much faster than average. Although pay is higher in more heavily populated parts of the country, optometry is an essential health service that is offered in all 50 states.

Working as an Optometric Assistant

Optometric assistants often need to be competent in a variety of skills, whether they are secretarial or clinical. Marketing and web design, database maintenance, purchasing and other general office tasks take place alongside tasks such as screening patients for glaucoma, taking ocular measurements and teaching new contact lens users how to apply and remove their lenses.

There is a huge amount of variation in the day-to-day working lives of optometric assistants. In a large, franchised vision clinic, there may be assistants whose role it is to work the sales floor, getting customers to consider expensive designer frames, while other assistants work on billing and yet others are doing clinical or laboratory work. In most small practices, a varied daily role is the norm. Aside from working in optometric practices, optometric assistants can be found at specialist laboratories that make glasses and contact lenses, pharmaceutical companies, teaching hospitals, and specialist eye hospitals. They might also be found in community colleges, universities and technical schools, passing their knowledge on to the next generation.

Optometric assistants enjoy the relative job security and reasonable pay that is typical in allied healthcare fields, without the unsociable hours that are sometimes required in care and hospital settings. Most optometric assistants and technicians work during normal business hours and enjoy the privilege of making direct and immediate beneficial changes to the quality of life of their patients.

Optometry enables patients to improve and maintain their vision with immediate results, without always needing invasive surgery or medication with significant side effects, and the joy of helping someone to gain confidence in the world or maintain their independence is a big reason why people get involved in the field.