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What is an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist uses a small device to view her patient's eyes more closely.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) who specializes in eye care and the treatment of eye disease and vision problems. In addition to providing medical care, ophthalmologists perform eye and vision surgery.

Because ophthalmologists are physicians, they sometimes are called “eye MDs.”

But an ophthalmologist can also be a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine, and therefore may have the professional doctoral degree of “DO” rather than “MD.”

This sometimes can be a little confusing, because the professional degree of another eye doctor — an optometrist, or Doctor of Optometry — is abbreviated “OD.”

Education

Ophthalmologists have more extensive training than optometrists in the diagnosis and medical care of eye diseases and conditions. And, with a few exceptions, only ophthalmologists are trained and licensed to perform eye surgery.

Generally, the education of an ophthalmologist includes:

  • A four-year undergraduate degree from a college or university

  • Four years of medical school to obtain an MD or DO degree

  • A one-year hospital internship

  • A three-year residency in the medical and surgical care of the eye

Some ophthalmologists specialize in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care. These eye MDs are called subspecialists.

Examples of ophthalmology subspecialists include:

READ MORE about the profession of ophthalmology.

Board certification

Many (but not all) eye MDs choose to become “board-certified” ophthalmologists.

To achieve this status, they must pass a rigorous two-part examination given by the American Board of Ophthalmology that’s designed to evaluate and endorse their knowledge, experience and skills in the care and treatment of the eyes and visual system.

READ MORE about training and certification for ophthalmologists.

Services

Ophthalmologists are licensed and qualified to diagnose and treat all eye diseases and vision problems, including the following potentially blinding conditions:

Some ophthalmologists specialize in vision correction surgery (such as LASIK) to reduce or eliminate your need for corrective lenses for myopia and other refractive errors.

And, like optometrists, many ophthalmologists also provide routine comprehensive eye exams and prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses.

When to see an ophthalmologist

If you choose to see an ophthalmologist for routine eye care, annual eye exams are a good idea, especially for:

  • Children

  • Contact lens wearers

  • Anyone with diabetes or other risk factors for eye problems

  • Adults over age 60

If you notice a sudden or significant change in your vision, seek care from an ophthalmologist immediately.

Cost of exams

Generally, the cost of eye exams and other services provided by an ophthalmologist is at least partially covered by vision insurance or medical insurance.

If you don’t have insurance, routine eye exams provided by an ophthalmologist usually cost more than eye exams provided by an optometrist.

Whichever eye doctor you choose, ask about costs and possible insurance coverage before you schedule your exam.

ALSO: For a quick side-by-side comparison of eye doctors, see this Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist infographic.

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Gary Heiting, OD

Gary Heiting, OD, is a former senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 30 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear ... Read more