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Ophthalmologists – Education, Expertise, When to See One and More

When you experience vision problems and decide to visit an urgent care facility or your primary care physician, you are likely to be referred to an ophthalmologist, optometrist or optician. While all these are vision and eye care providers, they differ in expertise and training.

eye doctor with child patient

Ophthalmologists are highly trained and skilled physicians who specialize in comprehensive medical and surgical eye care and treatment.

Although every member of an eye care team is invaluable, opticians and optometrists are limited in what they can offer to their vision patients. On the other hand, ophthalmologists can do anything related to eye care, from diagnosis and treatment to preventing all vision problems. Thus, an ophthalmologist can perform the function of an optician, which is the provision of vision services – contact lenses and eyewear – and also perform eye surgeries. 

Understanding the roles of each specialist in maintaining your eye health is essential, especially when it is time for an eye check.

Education and Training of Ophthalmologists

To become an ophthalmologist in the United States, you must complete 12 to 13 years of education and training. First, you need to complete four years of college, followed by another four years of medical training to obtain a bachelor’s degree. The last four to five years are for postgraduate specialty training.

The advanced education and training include a minimum of 36 calendar months residency in ophthalmology. During the residency, you receive training in the fundamentals of all ophthalmologic subspecialties as described below. At least one year of internship is mandatory before you can begin practicing.

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What Specialties Can Ophthalmologists Have?

Typically, an ophthalmologist is trained to manage all eye and vision problems. But some undertake further training in specific areas of eye care known as subspecialties. A subspecialty can either be medical or surgical, requiring you to complete an additional one or two years of advanced education and training.

The in-depth subspecialty training, professionally referred to as a fellowship, can be in any of the following areas:

  • Glaucoma
  • Pediatric ophthalmology
  • Retina/Uveitis
  • Anterior segment or cornea
  • Neuro-ophthalmology
  • Ocular oncology
  • Oculoplastic/ orbit and reconstructive surgery

Sub-specialization allows the ophthalmologist to handle more complex eye conditions such as reconstructive and aesthetic facial surgery.

What Does an Ophthalmologist Do?

Extensive training allows ophthalmologists to diagnose and treat all vision problems, identify other health conditions and refer patients to other doctors. These highly trained specialists are licensed to practice medicine and surgery like other general physicians since they have bachelor’s degrees in medicine.

As an ophthalmologist, you can perform eye surgeries and offer vision services that entail prescribing and fitting glasses or contact lenses.

Additionally, ophthalmologists conduct studies and scientific research on the etiologies, treatment, and prevention of different eye disorders.

What Does an Ophthalmologist Treat?

As a specialty, ophthalmology entails medical and surgical care of the eye plus the associated structures that include the optic nerve, visual cortex, and ocular muscles. Therefore, a specialist in this field can manage any condition that affects the above structures.

The disorders ophthalmologists treat range from mild conjunctivitis to vision-threatening diseases such as macular degeneration. Here are the most common examples:

  • Refractive errors like nearsightedness and astigmatism
  • Retinopathy
  • Eye trauma and hyphema
  • Cancers of the eye
  • Dry eye syndrome
  • Bulging eyes and swollen/drooping eyelids
  • Inflammation of the optic nerve, retina, and uvea
  • Lazy eye (amblyopia)
  • Age-related macular degeneration and other eye problems
  • Macular and Fuch’s dystrophy
  • Strabismus

When an eye condition is caused by another medical condition such as diabetes, the ophthalmologist will coordinate with another practitioner to ensure you receive optimal care.

Reason to See an Ophthalmologist

Vision problems can impair your ability to perform daily tasks, including reading and driving. That makes it important to see an ophthalmologist at the right time to receive treatment or prevent the progression of certain conditions.

If you have systemic disorders such as hypertension and diabetes or a family history of eye problems, you are more likely to develop vision issues. Since the vision changes are often subtle, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends having at least one complete eye exam by an ophthalmologist before age 40.

If you have any concerns about your vision or experience symptoms of eye disease such as blurry vision, dry eyes, ocular headache, light sensitivity or excessive tearing, you should visit an ophthalmologist.

Ophthalmologist vs. Optometrist

Ophthalmologists and optometrists often work in the same eye care team. But they differ in qualifications, training and the type of services they offer. For instance, ophthalmologists are medical doctors. Optometrists are not.

Unlike an ophthalmologist, the roles of an optometrist are limited to eye tests, prescription and dispensation of lenses, as well as prescription of eye medications.

Generally, ophthalmologists earn more than optometrists do. However, the value varies by state and working conditions.

How To Find an Ophthalmologist Near You

To find a certified ophthalmologist near you, log into the American Academy of Ophthalmology portal and enter your details, including name, ZIP code, or city.


What does an ophthalmologist do?

An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats all medical and surgical eye conditions. They also prescribe and fit corrective lenses in addition to performing surgeries.

Is an ophthalmologist a doctor?

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors as they complete medical degrees before undertaking postgraduate training.

Is an ophthalmologist higher than an optometrist?

The education and training ophthalmologists receive is more advanced and extensive than optometrists. This translates to the range of services they also offer.


  1. Ophthalmology. American College of Surgeons.

  2. The Training of an Ophthalmologist. (November 1955). American Journal of Ophthalmology.

  3. Ophthalmology Subspecialists. (June 2016). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  4. What is an Ophthalmologist? (January 2022). American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  5. Find An Ophthalmologist. American Academy of Ophthalmology.

  6. Requirements for Certification. American Board of Ophthalmology.

  7. The Complete Guide to Becoming an Opthalmalogy Doctor. BJM Careers.

  8. Ophthalmic Specialist Training. The Royal College of Ophthalmologists.

Last Updated February 26, 2022

Note: This page should not serve as a substitute for professional medical advice from a doctor or specialist. Please review our about page for more information.

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