What Is An Orthoptist?

When it comes to getting good care for our eyes and vision, there are a number of professionals that may play a part—many of whom have professional titles that, somewhat confusingly, all begin with the letter O.

Within the professional sphere of eye medicine and care, there are opticians who prescribe and dispense corrective lenses, optometrists who can diagnose and treat eye problems and ophthalmologists who can perform surgery and provide specialist treatment.

Fewer people have heard of orthoptists, highly trained and certified professionals who specialize in treating how our eyes work together to provide binocular vision. Orthoptics is a well-paid career, which requires special certification and years of training.

Upon certification, orthoptists might find themselves working in eye clinics, hospitals, rehabilitation centers or even screening the vision of schoolchildren. It can be hard work, but the opportunity to help people with their eyesight, stopping decline and regaining function, can be very rewarding.

The Duties of an Orthoptist

Orthoptists often work closely with ophthalmologists, but where ophthalmologists are focused largely on surgical interventions for complex eye problems, orthoptists’ expertise is in non-surgical interventions.

Orthoptists can treat disorders such as lazy eye, strabismus, and disorders in the muscles or nerves that can affect the movement of the eyes. If a patient is suffering from misaligned eyes, blurring, double or oscillating vision or abnormal head movements, an orthoptist might be able to help regain clear vision without the need for invasive surgery. Their training equips them to offer a wide variety of treatments, from patches and eye exercises to special lenses and prisms.

Orthoptists can also help patients with degenerative disorders, such as multiple sclerosis or stroke, or brain tumor patients maintain as much of their vision as possible as their conditions progress. They can make a huge impact on a patient’s quality of life and help them maintain independence in the home and in the performance of the tasks of daily living.

Orthoptists are often found working in hospitals and specialist eye clinics, as well as neurological and physical rehabilitation centers, where they are helping people who have suffered neurological trauma regain as much vision as possible. Orthoptists also can be found working in schools, where children are given thorough eye tests, to make sure they have as much capacity for visual information as possible. A large medical practice might employ an orthoptist, but generally patients will get a special referral from their doctors to see one.

Training to Become an Orthoptist

In the United States, you’ll need a considerable amount of education and training to become an orthoptist. You’ll need to have a degree from a four-year university—this does not need, necessarily, to be in science or medicine—and to have completed a two-year orthoptics fellowship, which is offered at one of 13 accredited programs available in the US and Canada.

These programs involve classroom and hands-on clinical education and are linked to medical facilities, where you’ll have the chance to work with actual patients. You’ll learn about the anatomy of the eye and the neuromuscular systems that control our eyes—particularly the systems that allow our eyes to work in concert. You’ll also get a significant understanding of general anatomy and physiology, because eyesight is linked to general health. Many maladies, such as diabetes, can affect vision. You will gain the ability to diagnose and treat patients with a wide variety of disorders, and over the course of your fellowship you’ll likely treat up to 1500 patients.

A firm understanding of how the healthcare system works, how to work well with patients, how to write accurate patient reports while respecting patient confidentiality and the basics of the finance and accounting needed to run a medical business are also part of your studies.

You’ll also need to pass a certifying exam. National regulations to sit for the certifying exam to become an orthoptist require a bachelor’s degree and successful completion of your fellowship. To get into a fellowship program you’ll need to apply, undertake a personal interview, and pay a tuition fee, which generally is about $5000 per year.

While orthoptics programs don’t generally qualify for federal and state financial aid, private financial aid may be available through the individual program that you apply to.

It’s important to keep in mind that because you will be working in a clinical setting, often with vulnerable patients, it is likely that you will need to undertake drug screenings and to disclose any criminal convictions that you may have in order to access an orthoptics fellowship program.

Certifying to Become an Orthoptist

After your satisfactory completion of an orthoptics program, and with the recommendation of the orthoptists that you studied with, you can take the certification exam. Governed by the American Association of Certified Orthoptists, this exam is currently administered by Pearson Vue private testing centers. After successful completion of the exam, you can call yourself a certified orthoptist and are required to undertake continuing education and to recertify every three years.

While the American Association of Certified Orthoptists is the most well-known American certifying body for orthoptists, the International Orthoptic Association supports a worldwide membership, representing national orthoptics bodies from 22 countries.

Job Outlook and Salary Expectations for Orthoptists

As an allied health profession—and one that requires significant professional skill—orthoptics is a fast-growing field, with 11 percent job growth predicted between 2018 and 2028 across the US. The median salary for orthoptists is $76,000.

Orthoptists often find steady, reliable work for long periods of time, meaning they can build careers and communities with a reasonable level of job security. While it may be necessary to travel to obtain an education in orthoptics and to find a good professional role, orthoptists generally work reasonable hours during the regular business week, rather than being called into work for a surgical emergency—something that is part of the job for ophthalmologists.

The best place to find available orthoptist roles is to look up open job listings on the websites of major hospitals and large health networks. Roles are also often posted on major job websites like Indeed or Monster.