When patients require a special appliance to see clearly, chew and speak
well, or walk, their health care providers send requests to medical, dental, and
ophthalmic laboratory technicians. These technicians pro-duce a wide variety of
appliances to help patients.
Medical appliance technicians construct, fit, maintain, and repair braces,
artificial limbs, joints, arch supports, and other surgical and medical
appliances. They read prescriptions or detailed information from orthotists,
podiatrists, or prosthetists. Orthotists treat patients who need braces,
supports, or corrective shoes. Podiatrists are doctors who treat foot problems
and request the same appliances as orthotists. Prosthetists work with patients
who need a replacement limb, such as an arm, leg, hand, or foot, due to a birth
defect or an accident. The appliances are called orthoses and prostheses.
Medical appliance technicians are also referred to as orthotic and prosthetic
For orthoses such as arch supports, technicians first make a wax or plastic
impression of the patient’s foot. Then they bend and form a material so that it
conforms to prescribed contours required to fabricate structural components. If
a support is mainly required to correct the balance of a patient with legs of
different lengths, a rigid material is used. If the support is primarily
intended to protect those with arthritic or diabetic feet, a soft material is
used. Supports and braces are polished with grinding and buffing wheels.
Technicians may cover arch supports with felt to make them more comfortable.
For prostheses, technicians construct or receive a plaster cast of the
patient’s limb to use as a pattern. Then, they lay out parts and use precision
measuring instruments to measure them. Technicians may use wood, plastic, metal,
or other material for the parts of the artificial limb. Next, they carve, cut,
or grind the material using hand or power tools. Then, they drill holes for
rivets and glue, rivet, or weld the parts together. They are able to do very
precise work using common tools. Next, technicians use grinding and buffing
wheels to smooth and polish artificial limbs. Lastly, they may cover or pad the
limbs with rubber, leather, felt, plastic, or another material. Also,
technicians may mix pigments according to formulas to match the patient’s skin
color and apply the mixture to the artificial limb.
After fabrication, medical appliance technicians test devices for proper
alignment, movement, and biomechanical stability using meters and alignment
fixtures. They also may fit the appliance on the patient and adjust them as
necessary. Over time the appliance will wear down, so technicians must repair
and maintain the device. They also may service and repair the machinery used for
the fabrication of orthotic and prosthetic devices.
Dental laboratory technicians fill prescriptions from dentists for crowns,
bridges, dentures, and other dental prosthetics. First, dentists send a
specification of the item to be manufactured, along with an impression (mold) of
the patient’s mouth or teeth. Then, dental laboratory technicians, also called
dental technicians, create a model of the patient’s mouth by pouring plaster
into the impression and allowing it to set. Next, they place the model on an
apparatus that mimics the bite and movement of the patient’s jaw. The model
serves as the basis of the prosthetic device. Technicians examine the model,
noting the size and shape of the adjacent teeth, as well as gaps within the
gumline. Based upon these observations and the dentist’s specifications,
technicians build and shape a wax tooth or teeth model, using small hand
instruments called wax spatulas and wax carvers. They use this wax model to cast
the metal framework for the prosthetic device.
After the wax tooth has been formed, dental technicians 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 arrive
at 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
adjust the shape and color, with subsequent grinding and addition of porcelain
to achieve a sealed finish. The final product is a nearly exact replica of the
lost tooth or teeth.
In some laboratories, technicians perform all stages of the work, whereas, in
other labs, each technician does only a few. Dental laboratory technicians can
specialize in 1 of 5 areas: orthodontic appliances, crowns and bridges, complete
dentures, partial dentures, or ceramics. Job titles reflect specialization in
these areas. For example, technicians who make porcelain and acrylic
restorations are called dental ceramists.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians—also known as manufacturing opticians,
optical mechanics, or optical goods workers—make prescription eyeglass or
contact lenses. Prescription lenses are curved in such a way that light is
correctly focused onto the retina of the patient’s eye, improving his or her
vision. Some ophthalmic laboratory technicians manufacture lenses for other
optical instruments, such as telescopes and binoculars. Ophthalmic laboratory
technicians cut, grind, edge, and finish lenses according to specifications
provided by dispensing opticians, optometrists, or ophthalmologists and may
insert lenses into frames to produce finished glasses. Although some lenses
still are produced by hand, technicians are increasingly using automated
equipment to make lenses.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians should not be confused with workers in other
vision care occupations. Ophthalmologists and optometrists are “eye doctors” who
examine eyes, diagnose and treat vision problems, and prescribe corrective
lenses. Ophthalmologists are physicians who perform eye surgery. Dispensing
opticians, who also may do the work of ophthalmic laboratory technicians, help
patients select frames and lenses, and adjust finished eyeglasses. (See the
statements in Chapter 10 on optometrists and on physicians and surgeons, which
includes ophthalmologists, as well as the statements on and dispensing opticians
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians read prescription specifications, select
standard glass or plastic lens blanks, and then mark them to indicate where the
curves specified on the prescription should be ground. They place the lens in
the lens grinder, set the dials for the prescribed curvature, and start the
machine. After a minute or so, the lens is ready to be “finished” by a machine
that rotates it against a fine abrasive, to grind it and smooth out rough edges.
The lens is then placed in a polishing machine with an even finer abrasive, to
polish it to a smooth, bright finish.
Next, the technician examines the lens through a lensometer, an instrument
similar in shape to a microscope, to make sure that the degree and placement of
the curve are correct. The technician then cuts the lenses and bevels the edges
to fit the frame, dips each lens into dye if the prescription calls for tinted
or coated lenses, polishes the edges, and assembles the lenses and frame parts
into a finished pair of glasses.
In small laboratories, technicians usually handle every phase of the operation.
In large ones, in which virtually every phase of the operation is automated,
technicians may be responsible for operating computerized equipment. Technicians
also inspect the final product for quality and accuracy.
Medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians generally work in
clean, well-lighted, and well-ventilated laboratories. They have limited contact
with the public. Salaried laboratory technicians usually work 40 hours a week,
but some work part time. At times, technicians wear goggles to protect their
eyes, gloves to handle hot objects, or masks to avoid inhaling dust. They may
spend a great deal of time standing.
Dental technicians usually have their own workbenches, which can be equipped
with Bunsen burners, grinding and polishing equipment, and hand instruments,
such as wax spatulas and wax carvers. Some dental technicians have
computer-aided milling equipment to assist them with creating artificial teeth.
Medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians held about 87,000 jobs
in 2004. Around 3 out of 5 salaried jobs were in medical equipment and supply
manufacturing laboratories, which usually are small, privately owned businesses
with fewer than five employees. However, some laboratories are large; a few
employ more than 1,000 workers. Employment by detailed occupation is presented
in the following tabulation:
Dental laboratory technicians 50,000
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians 25,000
Medical appliance technicians 11,000
Some medical appliance technicians work in health and personal care stores,
while others work in public and private hospitals, professional and commercial
equipment and supplies merchant wholesalers, offices of physicians, or consumer
goods rental centers. Some are self- employed.
Some dental laboratory technicians work in offices of dentists. Others work
for hospitals providing dental services, including U.S. Department of Veterans
Affairs hospitals. Some technicians open their own offices or work in dental
laboratories in their homes.
Around 30 percent of ophthalmic laboratory technicians work in health and
personal care stores, such as optical goods stores that man-ufacture and sell
prescription glasses and contact lenses. Some are in offices of optometrists or
ophthalmologists. Others work at professional and commercial equipment and
supplies merchant wholesalers. A few work in commercial and service industry
machine manufacturing firms that produce lenses for other optical instruments,
such as telescopes and binoculars.
Most medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians learn their craft
on the job; however, many employers prefer to hire those with formal training in
a related field.
Medical appliance technicians begin as a helper and gradually learn new skills
as they gain experience. Formal training is also available. There are currently
4 programs actively accredited by the National Commission on Orthotic and
Prosthetic Education (NCOPE). These programs offer either an associate degree
for orthotics and prosthetic technicians or one-year certificate for orthotic
technicians or prosthetic technicians. The programs instruct students on human
anatomy and physiology, orthotic and prosthetic equipment and materials, and
applied biomechanical principles to customize orthoses or prostheses. The
programs also include clinical rotations to provide hands-on experience.
Voluntary certification is available through the American Board for
Certification in Orthotics and Prosthetics (ABC). Applicants are eligible for an
exam after completing a program accredited by NCOPE or obtaining two years of
experience as a technician under the direct supervision of an ABC-certified
practitioner. After successfully passing the appropriate exam, technicians
receive the Registered Orthotic Technician, Registered Prosthetic Technician, or
Registered Prosthetic-Orthotic Technician credential.
High school students interested in becoming medical appliance technicians should
take mathematics, metal and wood shop, and drafting. With additional formal
education, medical appliance technicians can advance to become orthotists or
Dental laboratory technicians begin with simple tasks, such as pouring plaster
into an impression, and progress to more complex procedures, such as making
porcelain crowns and bridges. Becoming a fully trained technician requires an
average of 3 to 4 years, depending upon the individual’s aptitude and ambition,
but it may take a few years more to become an accomplished technician.
Training in dental laboratory technology also is available through community and
junior colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and the U.S. Armed Forces.
Formal training programs vary greatly both in length and in the level of skill
In 2004, 25 programs in dental laboratory technology were approved (accredited)
by the Commission on Dental Accreditation in conjunction with the American
Dental Association (ADA). These programs provide classroom instruction in
dental materials science, oral anatomy, fabrication procedures, ethics, and
related subjects. In addition, each student is given supervised practical
experience in a school or an associated dental laboratory. Accredited programs
normally take 2 years to complete and lead to an associate degree. A few
programs take about 4 years to complete and offer a bachelor’s degree.
Graduates of 2-year training programs need additional hands-on experience to
become fully qualified. Each dental laboratory owner operates in a different
way, and classroom instruction does not necessarily expose students to
techniques and procedures favored by individual laboratory owners. Students who
have taken enough courses to learn the basics of the craft usually are
considered good candidates for training, regardless of whether they have
completed a formal program. Many employers will train someone without any
The National Board for Certification, an independent board established by the
National Association of Dental Laboratories, offers certification in dental
laboratory technology. Certification, which is voluntary, can be obtained in
five specialty areas: crowns and bridges, ceramics, partial dentures, complete
dentures, and orthodontic appliances.
In large dental laboratories, technicians may become supervisors or managers.
Experienced technicians may teach or may take jobs with dental suppliers in such
areas as product development, marketing, and sales. Still, for most technicians,
opening one’s own laboratory is the way toward advancement and higher earnings.
A high degree of manual dexterity, good vision, and the ability to recognize
very fine color shadings and variations in shape are necessary. An artistic
aptitude for detailed and precise work also is important. High school students
interested in becoming dental laboratory technicians should take courses in art,
metal and wood shop, drafting, and sciences. Courses in management and business
may help those wishing to operate their own laboratories.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians start on simple tasks if they are trained to
produce lenses by hand. They may begin with marking or blocking lenses for
grinding; then, they progress to grinding, cutting, edging, and beveling lenses;
finally, they are trained in assembling the eyeglasses. Depending on individual
aptitude, it may take up to 6 months to become proficient in all phases of the
Employers filling trainee jobs prefer applicants who are high school
graduates. Courses in science, mathematics, and computers are valuable; manual
dexterity and the ability to do precision work are essential. Technicians using
automated systems will find computer skills valuable.
A very small number of 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. These programs have classes in
optical theory, surfacing and lens finishing, and the reading and applying of
prescriptions. Programs vary in length from 6 months to 1 year and award
certificates or diplomas.
Ophthalmic laboratory technicians can become supervisors and managers. Some
become dispensing opticians, although further education or training generally is
required in that occupation.
Job opportunities for medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians
should be favorable, despite expected slower-than-average growth in overall
employment through the year 2014. Employers have difficulty filling trainee
positions, probably because entry-level salaries are relatively low and because
the public is not familiar with these occupations. Most job openings will arise
from replacing technicians who transfer to other occupations or who leave the
Medical appliance technicians will grow faster than dental and ophthalmic
laboratory technicians, with employment projected to in-crease about as fast as
the average for all occupations, due to the increasing prevalence of the two
leading causes of limb loss—diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Advances in
technology may spur demand for prostheses that allow for greater movement.
During the last few years, demand has arisen from an aging public that is
growing increasingly interested in cosmetic prostheses. For example, many dental
laboratories are filling orders for composite fillings that are the same shade
of white as natural teeth to replace older, less attractive fillings. However,
job growth for dental laboratory technicians will be limited. The overall dental
health of the population has improved because of fluoridation of drinking water,
which has reduced the incidence of dental cavities, and greater emphasis on
preventive dental care since the early 1960s. As a result, full dentures will be
less common, as most people will need only a bridge or crown.
Demographic trends also make it likely that many more Americans will need vision
care in the years ahead. Not only will the population grow, but also, the
proportion of middle-aged and older adults is projected to increase rapidly.
Middle age is a time when many people use corrective lenses for the first time,
and elderly persons usually require more vision care than others. However, the
increasing use of automated machinery will limit job growth for ophthalmic
Median hourly earnings of medical appliance technicians were $13.38 in May
2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $10.46 and $18.22 an hour. The lowest
10 percent earned less than $8.21, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$23.66 an hour. Median hourly earnings of medical appliance technicians in May
2004 were $13.00 in medical equipment and supplies manufacturing.
Median hourly earnings of dental laboratory technicians were $14.93 in May 2004.
The middle 50 percent earned between $11.18 and $19.71 an hour. The lowest 10
percent earned less than $8.86, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$25.48 an hour. Median hourly earnings of dental laboratory technicians in May
2004 were $15.95 in offices of dentists and $14.40 in medical equipment and
Dental technicians in large laboratories tend to specialize in a few procedures
and, therefore, tend to be paid a lower wage than those employed in small
laboratories who perform a variety of tasks.
Median hourly earnings of ophthalmic laboratory technicians were $11.40 in
May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $9.33 and $14.67 an hour. The
lowest 10 percent earned less than $7.89, and the highest 10 percent earned more
than $17.61 an hour. Median hourly earnings of ophthalmic laboratory technicians
in May 2004 were $10.88 in health and personal care stores and $10.79 in medical
equipment and supplies manufacturing.
Additional laboratory Technician job resources are presented in the paperback
Health Care Job Explosion! 4th edition by Dennis V. Damp for this
occupational group. Resources include Job Ads, Job Hotlines, Job Fairs,
Placement services, Associations, Books, Directories and Internet (Web) Sites.
Your local library may have this book in their reference section or you can
purchase a copy for $19.95 plus shipping with all major credit cards from our
toll free service at 1-800-782-7424 (Orders Only). Also available at all major
bookstores. Also explore jobs at VA hospitals and other
federal government employment options.
American Academy of Orthotists and Prosthetists (AAOP)- 526 King Street,
Suite 201, Alexandria, Virginia 22314; 703/836-0788. (http://www.opcareers.org/,
firstname.lastname@example.org) Information on careers
and directory of education programs in orthotics and prosthetics.
National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE) - 330 John
Carlyle St., Suite 200, Alexandria, Virginia 22314; 703/836-7114. (
email@example.com) Student section of web site
has a list of accredited programs for orthotic and prosthetic technicians.
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Health Care Jobs, Medical, Dental, & Ophthalmic Laboratory Technician, Medical Jobs