What Is an Ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologists. Optometrists. Opticians. Osteopaths. Orthopaedists. Otolaryngologists. Obstetricians. The terms can get confusing, and you could say: “It’s all Greek to me.” (No pun intended.)

But what exactly is an Ophthalmologist?

An Ophthalmologist is a Physician and Surgeon (MD or DO) who specializes in the treatment of diseases, conditions, and injuries of the eye. An Ophthalmologist has the highest level of training of any clinician who specializes in eye care.

Following a four-year undergraduate degree, an Ophthalmologist completes four years of medical school. The purpose of medical school is to prepare a Physician to understand all aspects of the human body and how different systems interact with each other.  

Medical students also participate in two years of patient care rotations through different specialties, and this creates direct experience in managing patients in all aspects of medicine. This training becomes valuable when a patient presents with an eye issue that is not necessarily due to a source found in the eye. 

Following medical school, an Ophthalmologist focuses on eye care through one year in an internship and three years in an Ophthalmology residency, all of which is hospital-based training. The eye is complicated, which is why an Ophthalmologist’s training is intense. Baylor College of Medicine in Houston received 479 applications for six residency slots in 2018.

Following the residency, many Ophthalmologists complete at least one year in a sub-specialty fellowship, such as the retina or cornea.

It is only after all of this training that an ophthalmologist is deemed prepared to practice ophthalmology in an independent setting. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology:

"It is estimated that at least 17,280 of the total hours that Ophthalmologists spend in medical school, internship, and residency are spent in gaining experience and taking care of patients who enter hospitals, tertiary care centers, and academic medical centers. This is based on an estimate of an average of 60 hours per week (including on-call duty, the maximum duty hours for residents is 80 hours per week) multiplied by 48 weeks and by six years. During training, the ACGME requires that ophthalmologists manage a minimum of 3,000 outpatient visits with a broad range of disease presentation, and that they assist at and then personally perform under supervision a specified minimum number of various surgical procedures."