For a successful career as an orthoptist you'll need a specific degree and excellent communication and interpersonal skills to relate to both children and adults

As an orthoptist, you'll diagnose, treat and manage a range of eye conditions affecting both children and adults. Most of your work with babies and children will involve the correction of strabismus (misalignment of the eyes/squint) and amblyopia (lazy eye), and you'll also have a lead role in childhood vision screening.

You can work with patients who have suffered:

  • brain injury
  • binocular vision
  • diabetes
  • double vision (diplopia)
  • glaucoma
  • low vision
  • stroke.

Orthoptists usually work as part of a hospital team, but you may also work in community healthcare and schools.

Responsibilities

As an orthoptist, you'll need to:

  • use special equipment to measure the pressure inside a patient's eye
  • assess and interpret the patient's field of vision, eye position and eye movement
  • formulate a treatment plan, which might include prescribing eye exercises, an eye patch or the use of prisms
  • refer a patient for spectacle lenses or eye surgery if necessary
  • explain your diagnosis and any treatment needed to patients in easy to understand language
  • advise patients with low vision on the use of magnification and other strategies, such as lighting, to maximise their vision
  • monitor patients' treatment and condition
  • participate in extended role activities, such as glaucoma monitoring clinics, low vision aid clinics and stroke clinics
  • work as part of a multidisciplinary team, which may include opthamologists, optometrists and nursing staff
  • undertake general administrative duties relating to patient care.

At a more senior level, you may need to:

  • train students on placement and other health professionals, e.g. GPs and pre-registration optometry students
  • get involved in departmental research projects, the collection of clinical data for audits and the establishment of relevant protocols
  • organise supplies for the department.

Salary

  • Jobs in the NHS are usually covered by the Agenda for Change (AfC) Pay Rates consisting of nine pay bands. Salaries for new graduates range from £21,909 to £28,462 (band 5).
  • As a specialist or highly-specialist orthoptist, you'll typically be employed on either band 6 or band 7 with salaries ranging from £26,302 to £41,373.
  • Salaries for head orthoptists range from £31,383 to £82,434 (band 7 to 8d), depending on the size of the department. Those working in London and the surrounding areas may receive a high-cost area supplement of between 5% and 20% of their basic salary.

Salary levels for orthoptists working outside the NHS may vary.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll usually work a 37.5 hour week, although you may be required to work a shift pattern, including weekends and nights.

Part-time work, job shares and career breaks are possible.

What to expect

  • Your work will typically take place in hospital clinics, although you may visit community clinics, schools and health centres. You'll work closely with ophthalmologists and optometrists and contribute to multidisciplinary teams.
  • Jobs are available in orthoptic departments in hospitals throughout the UK.
  • Examining patients can be physically uncomfortable as you may be constantly leaning forwards or kneeling and using equipment at awkward angles. The work can also be physically demanding as you may have to move patients (from wheelchairs to examination chairs, for example) and equipment.
  • You may need to travel between hospital sites during the working day or to clinics, health centres and schools.
  • As a UK degree in orthoptics is internationally recognised, there may be opportunities to work abroad.

Qualifications

You'll need to complete a degree in orthoptics at one of the following institutions approved by the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC):

  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • University of Liverpool
  • University of Sheffield.

Upon graduation from one of these courses, you're eligible to register with the HCPC and practise as an orthopist. You can also apply to become a member of the British and Irish Orthoptic Society (BIOS).

To get a place on a course, you'll typically need five or six GCSE passes or equivalent, including English language, mathematics and at least one science, and three A-levels (including one in science) at grade B or above. Biology is preferred, but not always essential.

If you have a degree in another subject, you must still complete the full three years of an HCPC-approved orthoptics degree to register as an orthoptist. Graduate applicants should have a minimum 2:1 (2:2 for some courses) in a science-based subject.

Course requirements may vary between universities so check with individual providers for full details on what qualifications and experience are accepted for entry.

Courses include a mix of theory and clinical practice and last three years full time (four years in Scotland). Clinical placements take place in hospitals throughout the UK and will link in with special needs schools, community clinics and child development centres.

Skills

You will need:

  • communication and interpersonal skills to relate to both children and adults
  • the ability to develop a good rapport with colleagues at all levels
  • organisational skills
  • the ability to empathise and communicate efficiently and tactfully with patients
  • the ability to work alone and in a team
  • patience
  • self-motivation
  • flexibility and adaptability
  • good observational skills and attention to detail
  • the ability to work on your own initiative
  • general IT skills.

You'll also need good manual dexterity and excellent hand-eye coordination.

Work experience

Competition for a place on a university course is fierce. You should have a good understanding of orthoptics and are advised to observe a state-registered orthoptist before applying for a place. This will show your interest in, and commitment to, the profession.

If this isn't possible, arrange a visit to the orthoptic department at your local hospital to speak to an orthoptist. Details of this, and any other relevant experience, should be included in your university application.

Experience of working in a caring environment, either in a paid or voluntary capacity, is also useful. Work with children, people with special needs and the elderly is particularly relevant.

Employers

Most orthoptists work for the NHS either in an eye hospital or in an eye department or community health centre. You may also visit primary schools and schools for children with special needs.

There are also opportunities to work in private practice or in high street optometry practices. You might also work with charities such as the RNIB or The Guide Dogs for the Blind Association.

Look for job vacancies at:

Hospital orthoptic departments may notify the academic departments at Glasgow Caledonian, Sheffield and Liverpool universities directly of any vacancies.

Professional development

Once qualified and in your first job, you will receive support from a mentor - a more experienced orthoptist who will help you settle into the working environment.

In order to stay registered with the HCPC, you must keep a record of your continuing professional development (CPD) activities and renew your registration every two years.

Membership of the BIOS provides indemnity insurance, as well as access to a range of events and conferences. These events allow you to network with colleagues, keep up to date with developments in the profession and build on your skills.

CPD training modules and events for orthoptists at all stages of their career are offered by the University of Liverpool. It's also possible to take further study at Masters, MRes and PhD level at one of the three institutions providing orthoptics undergraduate degrees. Subject areas covered include amblyopia, strabismus, binocular vision, stroke and visual development.

Career prospects

The majority of orthoptists are employed in the NHS, where there is an established career structure. It's possible to progress through the grades from orthoptist to specialist orthoptist, then on to highly-specialist orthoptist and eventually to head orthoptist with opportunities to take up a clinical management post. As the head of an orthoptics department, you'll have responsibility for a team of staff and managing a budget.

Career progression depends on gaining experience and expanding your role within the eyecare team. This can be done through further training and the use of highly-specialist equipment in areas such as:

  • age-related macular degeneration
  • electro-diagnostic testing of visual function and eye movement
  • glaucoma.

It's also possible to move into teaching, working with students on clinical placements, or into research, either at one of the universities that provide orthoptics degree programmes or in a hospital-based research post, combining research with clinical practice. Areas of research specialism include:

  • amblyopia
  • eye conditions associated with premature birth
  • eye movement disorders
  • visual rehabilitation in stroke, brain injury and low vision
  • neurophysiology of visual perception and binocular vision
  • methods of assessing vision and how we use it
  • developmental disorders and their visual associations
  • the effects of 3D technologies and binocular vision.

There may be opportunities to work in a private clinic and, with experience, you may be able to set up your own clinic with other eye professionals.