Advanced Practice Nursing

How to Become an Ophthalmic Nurse

How to Become an Ophthalmic Nurse
If you crave high drama and life-or-death crises, ophthalmic nursing may not be for you. Image from Unsplash
Tom Meltzer profile
Tom Meltzer January 15, 2020

Whether treating a condition or infection or preparing a patient for surgery, ophthalmic nurses provide essential care that protects and preserves patients' eyesight.

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Two delicate, gelatinous balls wedged into our heads are all that stand between us and blindness. It’s a sobering thought that should inspire gratitude for the medical professionals who make sure those gooey orbs keep working so we can continue to enjoy light, colors, and depth of field.

Medical doctors of the eye are called ophthalmologists, and the nurses who assist them are called ophthalmic nurses. The ophthalmologist may enjoy the glory job, but the ophthalmic nurses do a lot of the heavy lifting, and may even spend more time interacting with patients.

Any registered nurse can become an ophthalmic nurse. Interested in learning how? In this article, we’ll cover:

  • The duties and responsibilities of an ophthalmic nurse
  • Ophthalmic nurse salary
  • Educational commitment to become an ophthalmic nurse
  • Licensure and accreditation for becoming an ophthalmic nurse
  • Resources for becoming an ophthalmic nurse
  • Typical advancement path for an ophthalmic nurse
  • The pros and cons of becoming an ophthalmic nurse
  • Should you become an ophthalmic nurse?

The duties and responsibilities of an ophthalmic nurse

Ophthalmic nurses provide care and guidance to patients and assist ophthalmologists in treating patients. An ophthalmic nurse’s responsibilities include:

  • Performing initial screenings on ocular patients
  • Collecting medical histories
  • Assisting in eye exams
  • Assessing, diagnosing, and treating patients with ocular diseases and conditions
  • Maintaining records of patient visits
  • Educating patients on treatment of ocular conditions such as pink eye, dry eye, glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration
  • Preparing patients for ophthalmic surgery and treating them during their recovery and follow-up
  • Assisting in ophthalmic surgical procedures
  • Performing minor procedures

Ophthalmic nurses work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Ophthalmology offices
  • Laser centers
  • Doctors’ offices
  • Hospitals
  • Outpatient care centers
  • Clinics
  • Eye banks
  • Charity organizations

Ophthalmic nurse salary

It is difficult to find consistent, reliable income data for ophthalmic nurses. Indeed reports that opthalmic nurses earn salaries of $76,738. ZipRecruiter, on the other hand, fixes ophthalmic nurses’ annual average salary at $51,194. Payscale estimates the hourly rate for ophthalmic nurses at $35. This is a fairly specialized role with relatively few practitioners, which explains the paucity and disparity of available data.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not break out registered nursing incomes by specialization, but it does report income data for RNs as a whole. According to the BLS, registered nurses earn an average annual income of $71,730, or $34.48 per hour. The BLS asserts that jobs in registered nursing should grow by 12 percent—a rate more than twice that of the job market as a whole—by 2028.

Educational commitment to become an ophthalmic nurse

You must be a registered nurse to work in ophthalmic nursing. To become an RN, you must earn either an Associate Degree in Nursing (ADN), a two-year degree, or a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), a four-year degree. Additionally, you must pass the National Council Licensure Exam-Registered Nurse (NCLEX-RN), a comprehensive test consisting primarily of multiple-choice questions.

Does it make a difference whether you earn an ADN or a BSN? Yes, it does. Some practices permit BSNs to perform tasks and assume responsibilities ADNs may not. Further, an industry-wide push to require the BSN of all RNs has gained momentum in recent years; more and more practices are requiring the nurses they hire to hold a BSN.

It is not inconceivable that at some point soon, ADNs will no longer qualify for RN licensure. In any event, as more prospective registered nurses earn BSNs, the hiring prospects for ADNs will diminish correspondingly. If you’ve already earned an ADN, consider an RN to BSN or RN to MSN program to upgrade your degree.

Once you earn your registered nursing license, you can seek work in any field open to RNs, including ophthalmology. If you hope to advance your career further, you should consider pursuing a Master of Science in Nursing to train to become a nurse practitioner. At this level, you can perform many of the tasks that MDs perform, including ordering tests, diagnosing conditions, and prescribing medicines. Nurse practitioners work across many medical disciplines, including ophthalmology.

Licensure and accreditation for becoming an ophthalmic nurse

Once you have worked for two years (or 4,000 hours) as a registered nurse in ophthalmology, you can earn the Certification for Registered Nurse in Ophthalmology (CRNO). In addition to accruing the required work experience, you must also pass the Certified Examination for Ophthalmic Registered Nurses (CEORN) and pay a fee ($325 for members of the American Society of Ophthalmic Registered Nurses (ASORN), $425 for nonmembers). This computer-based 250-question multiple-choice exam takes four hours to complete. The CEORN Candidate Handbook provides details on this exam, including test dates and sample questions.

Certification demonstrates your commitment to your career and confirms your expertise in the field of ophthalmic nursing. Some employers offer better compensation to certified ophthalmic nurses, and many employers give job applications from certified nurses preferential treatment.

Resources for becoming an ophthalmic nurse

Typical advancement path for an ophthalmic nurse

You’ll start your career in ophthalmic nursing in a practice, clinic, hospital, or other healthcare facility. If you hope to advance in the field, you should earn your CRNO certification when you become eligible (after two years of practice). From that point, the next step up would be to pursue a Master of Science in Nursing to become a nurse practitioner or an advanced practice nurse, such as a clinical nurse specialist.

After working in ophthalmology, you may decide that you want to become an ophthalmologist. Ophthalmologists are medical or osteopathic doctors, meaning that you would need to complete medical school and residencies, a process that can take four years of medical school and another four or more years of internships and specialization training.

The pros and cons of becoming an ophthalmic nurse

Pros of becoming an ophthalmic nurse

  • Saving patients’ vision: When the University of London polled patients on which of the five senses is most important, a whopping 88 percent ranked sight first. We depend on vision as our primary sense, so keeping our eyes working and healthy is critical. As an ophthalmic nurse, you’ll help patients do just that.
  • America’s aging population: Age demographics in the US skew older with each passing year. Many ophthalmic conditions increase in frequency as people age, so the graying of America means boom times for ophthalmic medicine.
  • Exciting opportunities in developing countries: Because of a shortage of ophthalmologists in developing Africa and elsewhere around the globe, ophthalmic nurses can make especially valuable contributions overseas. The International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness reports that “ophthalmic nurses provide the backbone of eye health services in Africa… in many settings, working alone to provide eye health services in remote and underserved locations.”

Cons of becoming an ophthalmic nurse

  • Icky stuff: Ophthalmology isn’t just eye exams and contact lens fittings. Ophthalmology patients can have some pretty gross infections. Patients with macular degeneration need regular injections right into their eyeballs! Look, we know, nearly all nursing roles involve icky stuff. The point is, this isn’t the right job for you if you’re especially squeamish about eyes.
  • Not much opportunity for advancement: Ophthalmic nursing is a small and specialized field without a lot of room for career growth. To advance, you will probably have to leave ophthalmology and enter a broader practice.

Should you become an ophthalmic nurse?

If you crave high drama and life-or-death crises, ophthalmic nursing may not be for you. Unlike ER and ICU nurses, you won’t often save someone’s life as an ophthalmic nurse. You will, however, often save patients’ vision, and that’s no small accomplishment. Humans rely primarily on their visual sense, and while they can get along without it, it’s not easy. Most would prefer to remain sighted and are grateful to those who make it possible for them to do so—even when those people are sticking needles in their eyes. If that gratitude—and a decent paycheck—are enough to compel you to get up and go to work each day, then perhaps a career in ophthalmic nursing is for you.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

Questions or feedback? Email editor@noodle.com

About the Author

Tom Meltzer began his career in education publishing at The Princeton Review, where he authored more than a dozen titles (including the company's annual best colleges guide and two AP test prep manuals) and produced the musical podcast The Princeton Review Vocab Minute. A graduate of Columbia University (English major), Tom lives in Chapel Hill, NC.

About the Editor

Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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