Come to an eye appointment at UConn Health and you are sure to interact with at least one certified ophthalmology technician during your visit.
Ophthalmology technicians provide many of the clinical and administrative services of medical assistants, plus additional tasks specific to eye care that require specialty training and certification.
“They are the core of the practice,” says Tammy Martinez, clinical coordinator of UConn Health’s ophthalmology practice. “They are with the patients longer than the doctor is with the patients. They spend a good amount of time with patients from start to finish.”
Working in tandem with their ophthalmologists, ophthalmology techs often know from experience what the physician is going to require for the patient interaction.
“We have several different specialties within the group, so we have to understand what that patient’s coming for, whether it be for cataracts, ocular plastics, dry-eye specialty, and then review and prepare the patient for that with the special testing that’s needed,” says Michelle Demarco, an ophthalmology tech since 2000. “And each doctor likes things done a certain way, so you have to anticipate what that particular doctor will need, so when the doctor gets into the room, the patient is ready and prepared for the doctor and it kind of condenses the visit a little bit.”
One of UConn Health’s 18 ophthalmology techs, Demarco arrived in 2007 from private practice. She works mostly with Dr. William Ehlers, and she says figuring out his needs, getting to know the patients, and being with her coworkers are what she likes best about her job.
“I just know how he would triage a phone call; I don’t have to go for him for every answer, I kind of can anticipate what he would say, when to bring him in and not to bring him in,” Demarco says. “I think as a team, we work really well together and we do have a really good crew, very welcoming.”
Carrie Dannolfo also has two-dozen years of experience as an ophthalmology tech, but is the newest member of UConn Health’s group. Her reasons for getting into this line of work were personal.
“My father lost vision 31 years ago in one eye, and I just saw how devastating it was to him, and I kept thinking, if there was a chance to be able to correct his situation, I wanted to know about it,” she says. “There were community colleges that were offering ophthalmic assistant courses. And so I went out to Holyoke, where they had a certified ophthalmic assistant course, and then trained with the ophthalmologist who hired me.”
While she wasn’t able to restore her father’s vision in his right eye, she later was able to help her mother deal with wet age-related macular degeneration. And she finds herself with a rewarding career to this day.
“When someone walks away with your eyeglass prescription, it’s kind of like a pat on the back,” Dannolfo says. “You enjoy knowing you helped that person see the rest of the day, the rest of the week, the rest of the year.”
Dannolfo spent most of her career in a private practice. She joined UConn Health four months ago.
“Everybody was so welcoming, and I feel like I’m part of something special now,” Dannolfo says. “And I’ve been exposed to all new equipment. I come in, and I’m excited, I want to do this machine and I want to do that machine. It’s pretty fun. Everyone’s so patient and I love all the new toys to play with.”
Ophthalmology techs are required to renew their certifications every three years. In August 2022, in collaboration with their union, UConn Health adjusted the salaries of its ophthalmology techs to improve recruitment and retention by putting them more in line with the market.
“You have to have experience, and you have to learn,” Martinez says. “There’s a lot of learning, and every day you learn more. There’s a lot. It’s a skill. We have high expectations for them.”
Martinez has been an ophthalmology tech for more than 18 years, the last nine at UConn Health. She became a lead technician right before the pandemic. Last year she was promoted to clinical coordinator, which sometimes has her reprising her previous role to help with direct patient care.
UConn Health has two lead technicians, and then each ophthalmologist has a primary tech, with responsibilities including patient care, taking doctors’ messages, facilitating refills, and other supportive tasks.
“For a very small part of the body, the eye offers a lot of information to the doctor about your whole health,” Demarco says. “We do a lot of different tests and a longer exam for the patient to try to give the doctors as much information and try to solve the puzzle why they’re there. Because sometimes they don’t know why they’re losing their vision or things are just different for them. Some people don’t know they have diabetes or they don’t know that if you have something going on behind the eye that could key the doctor into something else that’s going on with your body, like a stroke or clot, or something like that, a disconnect somewhere.”
The International Joint Commission on Allied Health Personnel in Ophthalmology designates Nov. 6-12 as Allied Ophthalmic Personnel Week.
UConn Health offers ophthalmology services in Farmington, on the fifth floor of the Outpatient Pavilion, and in West Hartford, at 65 Kane St. Learn more about eye care services at UConn Health.