What is an Ophthalmologists?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or a physician (DO), specially trained in the medical and surgical care and treatment of the eyes.  Becoming an ophthalmologist can take 12 or more years of advanced education and training.  Ophthalmologists must complete 5 years of medical school, and 1 year of internship (hospital training).  After that, the doctor undergoes 3 to 5 years of hospital residency to train in the medical specialty of ophthalmology.

An ophthalmologist may practice as a comprehensive, or general, ophthalmologist, a doctor who treats a wide range of eye problems and conditions.  For example, patients might visit a comprehensive ophthalmologist for a routine medical eye examination, which would include having their vision checked and perhaps receiving a prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses.  Patients also would visit a comprehensive ophthalmologist to have their eyes examined for a particular disease or injury and receive medication or surgical treatment.

Some ophthalmologists obtain fellowship training after residency to learn more about one or two specific aspects or elements of the eye.  After this fellowship training, they practice as subspecialists, doctors who concentrate on treating eye problems primarily in those few specific areas.  For example, a subspecialist may concentrate only on medical and surgical problems of the outer parts of the eye or on children’s eye problems or on eye problems related to just one disease, such as glaucoma.

It may seem surprising that a doctor would require so much training to treat such a small body part.  But when we consider how important vision is to us all, and how complex and delicate the eye is, it isn’t so surprising after all.

What Other Professionals Care For The Eyes?

People commonly confuse ophthalmologists with optometrists and opticians, but there are important differences among them.  The main difference is that, unlike ophthalmologists, neither optometrists nor opticians are required to attend or graduate from medical school.  Because they do not have a medical training or background, optometrists and opticians provide only limited forms of eye care.

Optometrists (Doctors of Optometry, or ODs) attend 4 years of college and 4 years of optometry school, where they are trained to examine the eyes to determine the presence of a limited number and type of vision problems and certain problems related to eye movement.  Optometrists primarily prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses.   Some states in the United States permit optometrists to diagnose (determine the presence and nature of) certain eye diseases and treat them with mostly topical medications (eyedrops or ointment), within limitations.  No state permits optometrists to perform conventional surgery.

Opticians are individuals who are trained to design, verify, and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses, and other devices to correct eyesight.  They use prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists or optometrists, but they do not test vision or write prescriptions for visual correction.  Opticians are not permitted to diagnose or treat eye diseases.

In contrast to optometrists and opticians, ophthalmologists are medical doctors who can examine the eyes in relation to the general health and condition of the whole body.  The ophthalmologist is the only once of these three professionals who is qualified as a physician to diagnose all eye diseases and to prescribe or perform medical and surgical treatment of the eye.

How Are Ophthalmologists, Optometrists and Opticians Different?

Ophthalmologists (Eye M.D.s) are different from optometrists and opticians in their training and in what they can diagnose and treat.

As a medical doctor, an ophthalmologist is licensed to practice medicine and surgery. He or she diagnoses and treats all eye diseases, performs eye surgery, and prescribes and fits glasses and contact lenses.

Ophthalmologists complete:

5 years of medical school;
1 year of internship;
between 5 – 8 years of hospital residency (hospital-based training) in the diagnosis and medical and surgical treatment of eye disorders.

After four years of college and eight additional years of medical education and training, an ophthalmologist must pass a rigorous examination given by the American Board of Ophthalmology.

While all ophthalmologists specialize in eye problems and can treat all conditions, some decide to concentrate in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care. These doctors are called subspecialists. They usually complete a fellowship, which is one or two more years of training in the chosen area. Some subspecialists focus on the treatment of a disease, such as glaucoma. Others subspecialize in a particular part of the eye such as the retina. Paediatric ophthalmologists subspecialize in treating eye disease in children.

An optometrist is a doctor of optometry, licensed to practice optometry. Optometrists determine the need for glasses and contact lenses, prescribe optical correction, and screen for abnormalities of the eye. They attend two to four years of college and four years of optometry school.

In some states, optometrists can prescribe a limited amount of drugs to help diagnose and treat certain eye conditions. Optometrists generally do not perform surgery.

An optician-licensed by a state to make optical aids-fits, adjusts and dispenses glasses, contact lenses and other optical devices on written prescriptions of a licensed ophthalmologist or optometrist. Training for an optician varies from a preceptorship to two years of opticianry school.