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Understanding the eye health profession

What’s an eye health professional?

An eye health professional is someone who is qualified to provide care related to your eyes or vision. There are different types of eye health professionals. The services and treatments they offer are in line with their level of training.

So, let’s look at the difference between ophthalmologists, optometrists and orthoptists.

What’s an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a highly trained medical professional, specialising in the diagnosis, management and treatment of eye diseases, injuries, and disorders.

What do ophthalmologists do?

Ophthalmologists are qualified to use a wide range of management and treatment options that may include administering eye injections, prescribing medications, performing eye surgery and, on occasion, prescribing corrective lenses. They usually see people with:

  • partial or complete loss of vision
  • eye disease such as macular disease, or glaucoma
  • eye disease that requires ongoing care and management
  • health or eye conditions that may affect their sight (e.g. retinal problems, diabetes and high blood pressure)
  • eye injuries, pain or inflammation.

How much training do they have?

Ophthalmologists in Australia are required to undergo medical training, which includes:

  • a university medical degree (five to seven years)
  • basic medical training as a newly qualified doctor (minimum of two years)
  • ophthalmic specialist training (five years), which involves up to 12,000 hours of training, including surgery.

Where do ophthalmologists work?

Many ophthalmologists work in both public and private hospitals. Most ophthalmologists also have private clinics. Some may lead an eye care team that includes optometrists and other health care professionals, to ensure that patients receive the most appropriate medical care.

Do I need a referral?

Yes, you will need a referral from your general practitioner or your optometrist to see an ophthalmologist.

What’s an optometrist?

Optometrists are primary health care providers who are experts in eye health. That means they are often the first point of contact for people who have eye or vision problems. 

What do optometrists do?

Optometrists are trained to examine eyes and diagnose and manage visual problems, including prescribing glasses or contact lenses. They also diagnose and monitor eye diseases. Optometrists are able to refer you to the ophthalmologist, if required.

How much training do they have?

Optometrists in Australia are required to have a university degree in optometry, which usually takes between five and seven years.

Where do they work?

Most optometrists work in private practice. However, they may also work in low vision clinics, hospitals, and government and community organisations.

Do I need a referral?

No, you don’t require a referral to see an optometrist.

What’s an orthoptist?

Orthoptists are eye health professionals who assess and manage eye movement disorders, and associated vision problems.

What do orthoptists do?

Orthoptists can test for eye diseases, as well as measure the progression of eye disease, using specialised technology. They may also prescribe management and rehabilitation programs for those with vision problems, vision disorders and vision loss. 

How much training do they have?

In Australia, orthoptists are required to have a university degree in orthoptics, which usually takes around two to four years.

Where do they work?

Orthoptists work in a number of different settings. These can include private practice, hospitals, low vision and rehabilitation clinics, and community health areas. Orthoptists may work on their own or as part of a multidisciplinary team. They may also work closely with ophthalmologists.

Do I need a referral?

No, you don’t require a referral to see an orthoptist.

Visiting an eye health professional

You might be confused and upset when diagnosed with an eye disease and dealing with low vision. Your ophthalmologist, optometrist or orthoptist will provide you with information and advice during your consultation. But sometimes it can be difficult to remember everything that’s been said.

Here are our top tips to help you when visiting an eye health professional:

  • if you feel as though you did not fully understand what was said, it’s okay to ring back after the visit to ask questions
  • take a friend or family member with you  
  • take notes or ask your friend or family member to take notes and be available later for discussion 
  • ask the eye health professional to write down instructions 
  • request further information if you are still in doubt 
  • find out if printed information is available
  • call Macular Disease Foundation Australia. We can answer many of your questions about macular disease.

MDFA fact sheets

Macular Disease Foundation Australia has prepared a number of fact sheets, with questions you might want to ask your eye health professional. You can view these online, download them, or head to our resources page and order a hard copy to be sent to you in the post.

These fact sheets have some of the main questions you should ask your eye health professional at your next visit.

Age-related macular degeneration