When to visit an ophthalmologist
As you get older, you need to get your eyes tested regularly. It is sometimes confusing to realise that there are numerous different professions associated with eye health, and the names of each starts with an ‘o’! ophthalmologists, optometrists, opticians, and orthoptists! Of course, general practitioners will also see patients for eye problems. So, who should you see? Which one deals with what problems? Who should do your eye examination? As you will discover, an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor – an eye surgeon or specialist in eye problems and diseases.
Let’s start by defining each of these professions
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who, after graduating from medical school, undertook additional specialist training in the diagnosis and management of eye disorders. It typically takes 13-16 years for an ophthalmologist to complete all of the required training. Ophthalmologists provide eye treatment in the form of medications, laser surgery, and incisional surgery.
Optometrists are not medical doctors but they are trained to examine eyes, screen for eye disease, give advice on visual problems, and prescribe and fit glasses and contact lenses. If significant eye disease is detected, optometrists will refer patients to an ophthalmologist for further assessment and treatment. If you have eye surgery (performed by an ophthalmologist) your optometrist may also participate in your pre- and post-operative care, although this is not very common. Optometrists have studied optometry at university, which is typically 5 years of training.
Opticians are optical dispensers, technicians trained to fit eyeglass frames. They use prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists or optometrists, but do not test vision or write prescriptions for visual correction. Opticians are not permitted to diagnose or treat eye diseases.
Orthoptists are trained to diagnose and manage disorders of eye movements. Orthoptists are also trained to perform investigations to assess eye diseases. They typically work with ophthalmologists to support them in assessing patients.
Like ophthalmologists, general practitioners are also medical doctors but they have not done specialist training in eye disease. They may treat minor eye problems such as eyelid infections and conjunctivitis, but they will typically refer all other eye patients onto an ophthalmologist.
More information about ophthalmologists
As mentioned above, an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor, somebody who has completed six years of comprehensive medical training, combined with practical experience in a variety of health settings, including different hospital departments (paediatrics, psychiatry, oncology and so forth).
After this, they study the ophthalmology specialisation for five years (in Australia). Many ‘subspecialise’, which means they complete an additional period of training working closely with an expert in a particular subfield of eye disease. This is because there is so much to know about the different forms of eye disease and that it is impossible for any single ophthalmologist to be a true expert in all areas. Most ophthalmologists in Australia will be comfortable treating most eye disorders but will have their unique subspecialty interests.
Many ophthalmologists are also involved in scientific research on eye diseases and vision disorders, searching for better ways to treat them. This knowledge prepares an ophthalmologist take care of more complex or specific conditions of the eye. It is this ultra-specialisation of ophthalmologists that you should keep in mind when you have been diagnosed with an eye condition. It would make sense to see an ophthalmologist who has specific expertise in the area of your complaint if you wish to get the best possible care. Ideally, your ophthalmologist would be both an experienced expert in your disorder as well as actively involved in research in that area.