What Does an Ophthalmologist Do?

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An ophthalmologist is a doctor who is specially trained in the medical and surgical health care of eyes. She focuses on the overall heath of the visual system, as well as preventive care of the eyes. Ophthalmologists are thoroughly trained in delivering comprehensive care, including vision examinations, prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses, and therapy and treatment for eye ailments and diseases.


There are records of ophthalmology being practice by the Egyptians as early as 1600 B.C. Ocular-related diseases, such as cataracts, ophthalmoplegia and eyelid cysts were already being identified and treated. Susruta, a surgeon who practiced in India more than 2,000 years ago, carried out cataract surgery. By the middle of the 19th century, ophthalmology was firmly recognized as a scientific and medical discipline in western Europe.

During this period, refractive errors and treatments, and knowledge of visual structures and processes, saw significant development. In addition the ophthalmoscope, the tool used for eye examinations, was invented. Ophthalmology was the first discipline in the medical field to issue certified board examinations.


Ophthalmologists are physicians who are specially trained to diagnose and treat vision problems and eye diseases. They usually treat patients with glaucoma, cataracts, eye injuries, cornea diseases and eyelid disorders. These doctors often write prescriptions for medication, eyeglasses and corrective contact lenses; they may even perform surgeries.

Ophthalmologists have the medical training not only necessary to demonstrate expertise in all aspects of eye care, but they also have the medical knowledge required to detect medical disorders that may be associated with eye problems. Often, they are capable of diagnosing maladies like diabetes, brain tumors or multiple sclerosis.


Besides graduating from an accredited four-year undergraduate program, individuals interested in becoming ophthalmologists must apply for admission into one of the 146 medical schools available in the United States. To increase their chance of admission, students should consider majoring in fields, such as chemistry, psychology, biology, physics or organic chemistry. Admission to medical school requires passing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).

Medical school students typically spend the first two years in the classroom. They take classes such as anatomy, physiology and biochemistry during the first year. Second-year courses may include courses on diseases and treatments. Typical topics include pathology, pharmacology and immunology. The final two years of medical school consist of rotating in various clinical settings in order to gain experience in different aspects of the medical field, such as surgery, pediatrics, gynecology and internal medicine.

Students interested in ophthalmology can usually choose it as an elective. Upon graduating from medical school, graduates obtain either a doctor of osteopathy (D.O.) or doctor of medicine (M.D.) degree, depending on the school they attend.

Additional Training

Medical school graduates must successfully complete a one-year internship. There is also a three-year residency requirement in ophthalmology. The program must meet the approval of the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). Some ophthalmologists elect to gain additional training in a fellowship program for further specialization in sub-fields of ophthalmology, such as glaucoma, pediatrics, cornea diseases or plastic surgery.


The American Board of Ophthalmology (ABO) is the primary certification board in the United States. It administers an extensive two-part examination, which consists of written and oral tests. The examination evaluates candidates’ knowledge and understanding of medical and surgical eye care. Upon passing the exam and meeting the other state requirements, candidates are designated board-certified ophthalmologists. The certification process is voluntary.