Ophthalmologist Career Guide


An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or an osteopathic doctor (DO) who has been trained to examine, diagnose and treat eyes. An ophthalmologist is different from an optician or an optometrist, though all three form important parts of proper eye care.

An optician isn’t an eye doctor.  Opticians use prescriptions from an optometrist or ophthalmologist to fit eyeglasses, contacts or other types of eyewear for patients.

An optometrist is an eye doctor, having obtained a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. This degree normally requires a bachelor’s degree in one of the sciences and then four years of post-graduate training in an accredited optometry school. Optometrists are qualified to examine eyes for problems or health or vision, and they can prescribe medications or eyewear. But most optometrists aren’t licensed to perform eye surgery, and the scope of medical care that an optometrist can provide is limited by state law.

An ophthalmologist can basically do anything an optometrist can, but can also perform whatever treatments—including surgery—that a patient might need.

Job Duties

Ophthalmologists perform routine eye exams and are trained to detect, diagnose and manage eye diseases like macular degeneration, cataracts or glaucoma. Some ophthalmologists specialize in a certain disease or condition, while others choose a more generalized practice, handling a wide variety of eye issues but referring especially difficult cases to a specialist.

Some ophthalmologists work with optometrists and other ophthalmologists in co-managing patients. In co-management, the primary care provider—either an optometrist or a general ophthalmologist—will handle the routine cases but will refer more difficult cases to an ophthalmologist, who might in some cases refer the patient to another specialist. Once that problem is treated, the ophthalmologist will then turn the patient back to the primary care provider, letting the care provider know what to look for in future examinations of the patient to avoid further problems down the line. If surgery has been performed on the patient, the ophthalmologist can detail the type of post-operative care needed for the patient.

Many ophthalmologists primarily deal with hospital outpatients who have glaucoma, cataracts, diabetes or some other degenerative condition. The most common places of work for ophthalmologists are outpatient clinics, hospital eye casualty departments and operating rooms.

Typical tasks for an ophthalmologist might include any of the following:

  • Examining and diagnosing patients
  • Managing ophthalmic conditions, which means being responsible for both the medical and psychological aspects of dealing with patients
  • Managing an outpatient clinic, specialist clinic or emergency eye clinic
  • Making rounds in a hospital ward for overnight patients
  • Communicating with the families of patients
  • Working with nurses and other doctors in treating patients
  • Collaborating with other specialists in determining treatment plans
  • Using ophthalmoscopes, slit lamps and lenses
  • Performing surgery
  • Certifying legally blind patients
  • Managing mental disorders that affect vision
  • Performing biopsies
  • Educating patients about their condition and the treatment plan for it

Ophthalmologists can specialize in a number of areas:

  1. Glaucoma. Treating diseases that cause optic nerve damage.
  2. Cornea and External Eye. Treating diseases of the cornea and the external areas of the eye.
  3. Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery. The combination of orbital and periocular surgery with facial plastic surgery.
  4. Neuro-ophthalmology. Investigating the inter-relationship between ophthalmic and neurologic diseases.
  5. Vitreoretinal diseases. Treating retinal and vitreoretinal diseases.
  6. Pediatric Ophthalmology. Treating pediatric patients, normally in cases of developmental eye disorders.
  7. Ophthalmic Pathology. Examining eye tissue specimens.

Career Outlook

According to recruiter.com, the job growth for ophthalmologists grew over 80% from 2004-2010, for an average annual increase of over 13%. Utah was the leading state in terms of job growth for ophthalmologists, followed by Idaho and Nevada.

As the “baby boomer” generation ages, the need for ophthalmologists should continue to rise, because older people require more eye care. According to a 2009 report by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), approximately one-fifth of all Americans will be 65 or older by the year 2030.

Salary Prospects

The Bureau of Labor Statistics website, which lists ophthalmologists in their “physicians and surgeons, all other” category, reports that, as of May 2012, the mean annual salary for this category was $184,820, and the mean hourly wage was $88.86. The Salary.com website puts the median expected annual salary for an ophthalmologist at $256,002.

Educational Requirements

An ophthalmologist normally has to complete four years of college, four years of medical school, a year of internship and then at least three years of residency at a hospital, where a candidate is trained in all aspects of eye care. Many prospective ophthalmologists spend an addition year in residency to perfect a specialty.

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