What is an ophthalmologist?
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.”
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:
Pediatric ophthalmologists, who specialize in children’s eye and vision problems.
Neuro-ophthalmologists, who specialize in complex neurological diseases that affect vision.
READ MORE about the profession of ophthalmology.
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.
Ophthalmologists are licensed and qualified to diagnose and treat all eye diseases and vision problems, including the following potentially blinding conditions:
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:
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.
Page published in December 2020
Page updated in February 2021