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What is Ophthalmology?

By C. Mitchell
Updated: May 17, 2024

Ophthalmology is a medical specialty pertaining to eye health. It is studied in medical school, and is practiced by medical doctors (MDs). The field of ophthalmology covers all issues that affect the eye, from vision problems to eye surgery. Ophthalmologists are qualified to both diagnose and treat all medical afflictions of the eye. Most ophthalmology practices focus on preventative care for patients’ eyes, and are typically run as any other medical specialty office would be.

Although similar in subject area, ophthalmology is markedly different from optometry. An optometrist, although also called an eye doctor, has usually received training from an optometry training program. That program prepares an optometrist to perform basic eye examinations, and to issue and fit prescription glasses and contact lenses, but it is not a medical degree program. An optometrist can identify serious eye problems, but cannot usually provide treatment. Treatment is an ophthalmologist’s job.

Ophthalmology practices often receive patients on referral from optometry clinics. Patients who are having trouble seeing often seek out optometrists first. Optometrists often have shops in malls or other public places, where they offer eye exams and sell glasses. An optometrist’s main goal is vision correction.

For many patients, the services of a licensed optometrist are all that is required to correct their vision. An optometrist will usually conduct a basic vision test to determine a patient’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to sight, and will recommend a way forward. Nearsightedness and shortsightedness, for instance, are very basic sight issues that an optometrist can easily diagnose and treat. More complex eye troubles — specifically, those requiring medical attention — usually require treatment by an ophthalmologist.

Most ophthalmologists do not deal with eyeglasses or contact lenses. Ophthalmology practice is centered on the medical roots of eye troubles. Ophthalmologists examine eyes not with the goal of correcting vision, as would an optometrist, but rather with the aim of identifying and eradicating the underlying problems that are manifesting as eye trouble. They will often give prescriptions for eyeglasses, but patients usually must take those prescriptions to optometrists to have them filled, and to select the proper corrective eye wear.

Ophthalmology practices, like all medical practices, often have a certain niche market that they serve. Some ophthalmologists specialize in pediatric eye care, for instance, and spend the majority of their time working with children suffering from eye afflictions. Others focus on certain eye diseases, like glaucoma. Eye surgeons are almost always ophthalmologists, even if they work outside of private practice, such as in a hospital.

Specializing in ophthalmology requires a tremendous amount of schooling. Not only must a student seeking an ophthalmology career pursue a medical degree, but he or she must also complete all of the ophthalmology specialty requirements. These requirements vary by country, but typically require periods of both internship and residency. The total training required is typically ten years or more.

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