What is an Ophthalmologist and Why Are They Important?

what is an ophthalmologist
what is an ophthalmologist

Ophthalmology 101: What is an Ophthalmologist and What Do They Do?

Medical ophthalmology is the broad term used to describe the study of the eye and associated treatments and surgeries. Doctors who specialize in this area are called ophthalmologists. It’s a bit of a tongue twister, we know. As with many medical names, the term has a Greek origin. It’s a combination of the words ophthal/ophthalmos (meaning “eye”) and logia (meaning “study” or “discourse”).

But, precisely what is an ophthalmologist? What do they do? How do they differ from opticians and optometrists? And when might you need to see one? Here’s everything you need to know.

The Three Types of Eye Care Professionals

When it’s time to get your eyes checked, it’s vital that you see the right healthcare professional. Opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists all play an essential role in providing eye care advice and treatment to patients. However, each type of practitioner’s training, expertise, and tasks vary significantly. Here’s a breakdown to help you gain a more thorough understanding.


Opticians are technicians who use prescriptions from ophthalmologists or optometrists to fit eyeglasses and contact lenses. An optician’s job includes helping you choose eyeglass frames and providing information about types of lenses and lens coatings, etc. Opticians cannot conduct eye exams, write prescriptions, or diagnose or treat eye problems.


Optometrists are not medical doctors (MDs). However, they complete four years of optometry school upon graduating from college, earning them a doctor of optometry (OD) degree. They are licensed to perform a broader range of tasks than opticians. An optometrist can conduct eye examinations, vision tests, and prescribe medication, corrective eyeglasses, and contact lenses. They cannot perform eye surgeries, but they can diagnose and treat vision changes and certain eye disorders and diseases.


An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor with several years of education and training. They specialize in eye and vision care, having completed a college degree and at least eight years of additional training to become licensed MDs.  Some have completed additional fellowships to focus their study of the eye on a specific area, allowing them to specialize in fields such as:

  • Glaucoma treatment
  • Retina damage
  • Cornea function
  • Pediatrics
  • Ocular oncology
  • Ocular neurology
  • Plastic surgery
  • Reconstructive surgery

So, what is an ophthalmologist’s job? In short, they are specialists who can do everything an optician and optometrist can do and more. They are licensed to:

  • Conduct eye exams and vision tests
  • Write prescriptions for eye medication, corrective eyeglasses, and contact lenses.
  • Use specialized medical ophthalmic equipment.
  • Diagnose and treat eye diseases.
  • Perform eye surgery and provide follow-up care.
  • Conduct scientific research on eye diseases and vision disorders.

An ophthalmologist’s extensive knowledge helps them identify other health problems that may be unrelated to your sight and refer you to a specialist. For example, abnormalities in pupil size can be an indicator of Horners Syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or an adverse reaction to prescription medication. Therefore, ophthalmologists work closely with your primary care physician and other medical specialists to ensure continued overall good health and provide specialized care for eye and vision problems.

Other Ophthal Roles

There are a few additional categories of eye healthcare professionals whose primary role is to support ophthalmologists and optometrists in their work. Examples include:

  • Medical ophthalmology assistants – Ophthalmic assistants can perform eye tests and assist ophthalmologists in simple ophthalmological procedures.
  • Ophthalmic technicians – Highly-skilled technicians who can assist with more complex tests and minor surgeries.
  • Ophthalmic photographers – Professionals qualified to use medical ophthalmic cameras and photography methods to create images that document a patient’s eye condition.
  • Ophthalmic registered nurses – Nurses who have specialized ophthalmic training, allowing them to assist with surgeries and administer injections and medications.

What Ophthalmological Procedures Are Available?

Because they can diagnose, prevent, and treat almost all eye conditions and vision problems, you may be referred to an ophthalmologist’s office for one of many symptoms, whether mild or severe. Examples include:

  • Reduced or blocked vision
  • Distorted or double vision
  • Floaters (black strings or specs) in your field of vision
  • Halos (colored circles around lights)
  • Loss of peripheral vision
  • Bulging eyes
  • Amblyopia (lazy eye)
  • Eyelid abnormalities
  • Excessive tearing
  • Dry eyes
  • Eye infections
  • Anisocoria (pupils of unequal size)
  • Misaligned eyes
  • Redness and irritation
  • Family history of eye disease

You may also be referred based on other health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV, and thyroid conditions, all of which have the potential to affect your eyesight. Ophthalmologists also work in emergency care facilities to provide urgent treatment for patients who experience eye injuries, sudden vision loss, or sudden or severe eye pain.

Broadly speaking, ophthalmological procedures can be separated into two categories:

  1. Ophthalmologist treatments – Routine tests, prescriptions, and medications that don’t require surgical intervention.
  2. Ophthalmology surgeries – Scheduled surgeries and follow-up care to correct conditions that cannot be treated non-invasively.

Let’s take a look at each in more detail.

Ophthalmological Treatments

Ophthalmologists provide a range of preventative, diagnostic, and treatment services for various conditions. So, what is an ophthalmologist’s role on a day-to-day basis? Appointments may encompass any or all of the following.

Vision Screenings – Regular checkups allow ophthalmologists to do much more than test and treat long-sightedness, short-sightedness, and general vision loss. Comprehensive ophthalmologist examinations protect your eyes and eyesight by catching early warning signs of eye disease before any symptoms appear.

Consultations – Ophthalmologists are often responsible for monitoring and consulting with patients on cases relating to other conditions that may affect their eyesight.

Treatments – Many mild to moderate eye problems can be treated without surgery. Examples include administering injections around the eyes and face, and flushing/irrigating tear duct infections and blockages.

Prescriptions – Ophthalmologists can prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision deficits and medications like drops and ointments for eye conditions that don’t require more intense intervention.

Ophthalmological Surgeries

Do ophthalmologists do surgery? Yes, regularly. Most surgeries are performed by specialists who dedicate their time to performing a small range of operations that focus on a specific condition or a cluster of related conditions. Not all ophthalmology surgeries require a hospital stay. Some can be performed as outpatient procedures in your doctor’s office. The most common ophthalmological procedures include:

Glaucoma Surgery – While glaucoma surgery can’t necessarily undo vision loss, it is often essential to prevent further degeneration. The most common glaucoma surgery is called trabeculectomy, which involves removing part of the drainage tubes around the eye so fluid can drain naturally again.

Cataract SurgeryCataracts cause the lens in your eye to become cloudy, which affects your vision. Cataract surgery involves removing the original lens and replacing it with an artificial one to improve clarity and prevent further damage.

Refractive Surgery – Also known as laser surgery or corrective surgery, patients who opt for refractive surgery can decrease or eliminate their dependence on eyeglasses and contact lenses. Depending on the cause of vision loss, refractive surgery may involve lens implantation, lens replacement, or remodeling of the cornea.

Reconstructive Surgery – Reconstructive surgery may be required to fix injuries following an accident or to resolve congenital disabilities (birth defects) like crossed eyes.

Repairs – For injuries like a detached retina, prompt surgical action is required to ensure the patient does not suffer long-term vision problems or blindness.

Neoplasm – Also known as a resection, the goal is to remove whatever tumor, cyst, or foreign object that is causing a problem. This procedure often involves removing a small amount of healthy tissue (known as the margin) from around the site to ensure a full recovery.

Corneal Transplants – Often referred to as corneal grafting, this procedure involves replacing a damaged or diseased cornea with donated corneal tissue.

Macular Degeneration Surgery – As you age, leaking blood vessels can cause dark spots in your vision. Laser surgery burns away problem vessels to prevent bleeds that lead to reduced or distorted vision.

Get Paid to Protect Your Vision

The first signs of vision change or eye disease often go unnoticed. Your regular health screening should include a baseline eye exam and a routine checkup at a frequency recommended by your doctor.

At Vial, we specialize in clinical trials, including ophthalmology CRO, which has helped save the sight of thousands. When you join one of our trials, you’ll have regular screening visits and be compensated for your time. Not only are you helping to advance medicine, but it might be a vital first step in identifying problems that could affect your vision in the future.

If you or someone you know is interested in participating, check our website for available studies and fill out our one-minute form to check your eligibility. Sign up today!

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