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Considering Work as a Medical, Dental, or Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician?

Nature of Work

Health care is a modern necessity. Nursing and health care technician jobs are often unglamorous, but have the potential to be vastly rewarding in personal, financial, and intellectual ways, providing interesting challenges and opportunities for enthusiastic people. There are numerous degrees available for different types of work in the medical field. One job that is in high demand is for Medical, Dental, and Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians.

Medical, dental and ophthalmic laboratory technicians are generally called upon when patients require a medical device to help them either see clearly, chew and speak well, or walk. These technicians produce different implements designed to help such patients.

Medical appliance technicians construct, fit, maintain, and repair braces, artificial limbs, joints, arch supports, and other surgical and medical appliances. They follow prescriptions or detailed instructions from podiatrists, orthotists, prosthetists or other healthcare professionals and often work for patients who suffer from a birth defect, disease, accident, or amputation. Medical appliance technicians who work with orthoses (braces, supports, corrective shoes, etc) or prostheses (replacement limbs) are called orthotic and prosthetic (O&P) technicians, respectively. Other medical appliance technicians work with appliances, such as hearing aids, that help correct other medical problems.

O&P technicians create orthoses and prostheses by obtaining a plaster cast of the patient's limb or foot to use as a pattern and then fabricating the desired product out of plaster, thermoplastics, carbon fiber, acrylic or epoxy resins. More advanced prosthetic devices are electronic, using information technology.

They use hand or power tools to carve, cut, or grind the material and then weld the parts together and use grinding and buffing wheels to smooth and polish the devices. They may also cover or pad the devices with leather, felt, plastic, or another material. A finishing touch can be to mix pigments according to formulas to match the patient's skin color and apply the mixture to create a cosmetic cover for the artificial limb..

After fabrication, medical appliance technicians test devices for proper alignment, movement, and biomechanical stability using meters and alignment fixtures. Technicians also repair and maintain devices that have deteriorated over time.

Dental laboratory technicians fill prescriptions from dentists for crowns, bridges, dentures, and other dental prosthetics. Work is contracted through a dentist who provides the technician with a prescription or work authorization for each item to be manufactured, along with an impression or mold of the patient's mouth or teeth. Technicians then build and shape a wax tooth or teeth model, using small hand instruments. Dental technicians then pour the cast and form the metal and, using small hand-held tools, prepare the surface to allow the metal and porcelain to bond. They then apply porcelain in layers to mimic the precise shape and color of a tooth. Technicians place the tooth in a porcelain furnace to bake the porcelain onto the metal framework, and then they adjust the shape and color with subsequent grinding and addition of porcelain to achieve a sealed finish.

Ophthalmic laboratory technicians make prescription eyeglasses or contact lenses. They cut, grind, polish, and finish lenses according to specifications provided by opticians, optometrists, or ophthalmologists.

Work Environment

Work can vary based on employer. In some labs, technicians perform all stages of the work and in others, each technician performs just a few steps. In small laboratories, technicians usually handle every phase of the operation. In large ones, technicians may only be responsible for operating computerized equipment. Technicians also inspect the final product for quality and accuracy.

The laboratory environment is usually clean, well-lighted, and well-ventilated. Workers seldom have contact with the public and generally work 40 hours a week, with some working part time. The job can involve long stretches of standing and the tools necessary in production can cause injury if misused.

Training and Other Qualifications

Most medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians are trained on the job, but employers will prefer to hire those with formal training or at least a high school diploma. There are no regulated training requirements aside from obtaining a high school diploma. Students who are interested in such work should pursue courses in mathematics, science, metal and wood shop, art, drafting, and computers.

The length of the on-the-job training is variable. Medical appliance technicians usually receive long-term training, but ophthalmic laboratory technicians may spend much less time in training. Individual laboratories will specify what amount of training is required.

In addition to on-the-job training, formal training also is available. In 2008, there were 5 orthotic and prosthetic technician programs accredited by the National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE). These programs offer either an associate degree or a 1-year certificate for orthotic or prosthetic technicians. Training in dental laboratory technology is available through universities, community and junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. In 2008, 20 programs in dental laboratory technology were accredited by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in conjunction with the American Dental Association. Accredited programs normally take 2 years to complete, although a few programs can take up to 4 years to complete.

A few ophthalmic laboratory technicians learn their trade in the Armed Forces or in the few programs in optical technology offered by vocational-technical institutes or trade schools. In 2008, there were two programs in ophthalmic technology accredited by the Commission on Opticianry Accreditation (COA).

Certification can be obtained and could be a boon in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Texas, which require dental laboratories to employ at least one Certified Dental Technician in order to operate. Florida requires that labs register with the state and one dental technician in the lab must complete 18 hours of continuing education every two years.

Basic skills required to perform well as a technician include good manual dexterity, vision, and recognition of fine gradations of color, shading, and shape. Good computer skills and artistic aptitude for detailed work are also necessary.

Should they choose, medical appliance technicians who make orthotics can pursue additional formal education to become orthotists or prosthetists and work more closely with patients.


In 2008, medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians held about 95,200 jobs in the U.S. About 58 percent of these jobs were in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing, which usually are small, privately owned businesses with fewer than five employees. Only a few labs employ more than 1,000 workers. Work can also be found in health and personal care stores, public and private hospitals, dentist offices, optometrists offices, professional and commercial equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers, or consumer goods rental centers.

Job Outlook

Job outlook for Medical, Dental, and Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians is expected to be good and overall employment for these occupations is expected to grow 14 percent from 2008 to 2018, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Medical appliance technicians is expected to grow at 11 percent. Employment of dental laboratory technicians is expected to grow 14 percent. Ophthalmic laboratory technicians are expected to experience employment growth of 15 percent. Currently, few people seek these jobs both because of limited public awareness and low starting wages. As always, people with formal training in a medical, dental, or ophthalmic laboratory technology program will have the best job prospects.


Median annual wages of wage and salary medical appliance technicians were $34,460 in May 2008 with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $21,720, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $63,750.

Median annual wages of wage and salary dental laboratory technicians were $34,170 in May 2008 with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $20,740, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $58,140.

Median annual wages of wage and salary ophthalmic laboratory technicians were $27,210 in May 2008 with the lowest 10 percent earning less than $18,080, and the highest 10 percent earning more than $42,890.

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