There are approximately 96,000 medical, dental, and ophthalmic laboratory technicians working in the United States. Job growth predictions indicate that over the next decade the industry will grow at a faster rate than average rate for technicians specializing in dental and ophthalmic work and at an average rate for medical appliance technicians.
Medical equipment and supplies manufacturing companies employ nearly 60% of workers in the field. Technicians are largely trained on the job; however, applicants with formal training are especially sought.
Lab technicians create medical appliances that are required to enhance the way patients chew, walk, speak, or see. Medical appliance technicians build and fit everything from braces to artificial hip and knee joints, arch supports, artificial eyes, and limbs, and a host of other appliances. Detailed specifications written by podiatrists, orthodontists, prosthetic doctors, surgeons, or other professionals must be followed precisely, as the devices are being made for a unique individual. Prostheses, for example, are constructed in a series of steps. A plaster cast of the limb or foot is a pattern; often these casts are built from digital files. Materials such as plaster, acrylic, epoxy resins, thermoplastics, or carbon fiber are used. Some prosthetics are electronic. The chosen material must be cut and shaped using a variety of tools, and then parts are joined together with a strong weld. The device is ground and buffed, covered or padded, and, finally, stained to match the patient’s skin. Before delivery, the device must be evaluated for proper alignment, quality of movement, and stability. No device can be constructed to last forever. When a device shows wear or ceases to function correctly, the technician will repair it. Some devices can have their lives prolonged with regular maintenance.
Dental laboratory technicians are given instructions from dentists and orthodontists to create crowns, bridges, and dentures. The prescription includes a mold of the patient’s mouth. Technicians who have the newest technology available can receive this information digitally. The technician creates a mold and fills it with plaster to set. Next, the resulting model is put into a tool that imitates the patient’s bite and jaw movement. Using the model to note teeth size, shape, and gum line gaps, a wax tooth or set of teeth is constructed with precision hand tools known as wax spatulas or wax carvers. The metal framework for the prosthetic device is cast from this model. Once the wax teeth have been created, the surface is prepared so that metal and porcelain will bond. Porcelain is added in thin layers to imitate the shape and color of the original tooth and then baked onto the metal framework. The final steps involve fine grinding and adding another layer of porcelain to seal the finish. Depending on the laboratory, technicians may specialize or may be trained in all steps.
Lenses are cut, ground, edged, and polished by ophthalmic laboratory technicians who follow specifications from opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists. These days, most lenses are created using automated machines. Steps include cutting the prescription lenses and grinding the edges to a bevel that will fit the frame. Lenses are then tinted or coated if necessary. Next, the edges are smoothed by polishing, and the lenses are inserted into the frame. Ophthalmic technicians also make lenses for other types of optical equipment, such as microscopes, telescopes, and binoculars. Smaller labs usually task the technician with all steps of production, while larger companies have automated all steps and require the technician to run the computerized equipment. In either case, technicians must review the product for accuracy.
Medical, dental, and ophthalmic technicians are usually provided with laboratories that are well lit, well ventilated and very clean. While a few part time jobs may be available, most workers complete a 40-hour workweek. Some protective gear, such as goggles, gloves or ventilators, must be worn at times. Technicians working with sharp instruments, soldering or welding equipment, or other potentially dangerous materials must be careful to follow safety procedures.
The National Commission on Orthotic and Prosthetic Education (NCOPE) offers five accredited courses that culminate in either an associate degree or certification for orthotic or prosthetic technicians. Dental laboratory technology training is widely available through universities, community colleges, vocational-technical institutes, and the Armed Forces. The Commission on Dental Accreditation has accredited over 20 programs in conjunction with the American Dental Association. The Commission on Opticianry Accreditation (COA) has accredited two programs.
A handful of states require a Certified Dental Technician for a lab to operate. Certification is given by the National Board for Certification in Dental Laboratory Technology (NBC).
While certification is not required in most states, it will increase advancement possibilities. A wide range of certification types is available, taking from a few months to several years to obtain. Dental technicians can advance to supervisory or managerial positions. Experienced technicians may teach or take jobs with dental suppliers in such areas as product development, marketing, and sales.
The median annual salary for medical appliance technicians is around $35,000. Those in the highest 1 % bracket earn nearly $65,000. The median annual salary for dental laboratory technicians is $35,000, while the top 10% earn nearly $60,000. The median annual pay for ophthalmic laboratory technicians is around $27,000. Those in the top 10% earn more than $43,000.