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The role of a ophthalmologist

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who have further specialised in medical and surgical management of eye disease.
  • Ophthalmologists work closely with other healthcare professionals such as general practitioners, optometrists and orthoptists.
  • How much you pay for an ophthalmologist will depend on the type of care you receive and whether you have private health insurance.

What is an ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors with additional specialist training in the diagnosis and management of disorders of the eye and visual system. They are also sometimes called eye doctors or eye surgeons.

In Australia, ophthalmologists need to complete at least 5 years of specialist training after they become a doctor. If you have an eye disease or visual disorder, your doctor or optometrist may refer you to an ophthalmologist.

Ophthalmologists do surgery and prescribe contact lenses and glasses as well as medicines for eye problems.

What does an ophthalmologist do?

Ophthalmologists are surgeons, and can do:

When do I see an ophthalmologist?

Your doctor or optometrist may refer you to an ophthalmologist if you have:

  • partial or complete loss of vision
  • eye injuries, pain or inflammation
  • eye conditions, such as glaucoma
  • health conditions that can affect your eyes, including diabetes or high blood pressure
  • poor vision that needs specialist care

What questions should I ask an ophthalmologist?

Before you go to your first appointment, note down any questions you have. During the consultation, ask for clarification if you don’t understand what is said.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How do I find an ophthalmologist?

Ask your doctor or optometrist for a recommendation or use the healthdirect service finder to locate an ophthalmologist in your area.

The RANZCO find an ophthalmologist tool also allows you to search for an ophthalmologist who has a special interest, such as paediatric (children’s) ophthalmology.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Do I need a referral to see an ophthalmologist?

It is important to get a referral from your doctor or optometrist to see an ophthalmologist. This is so that they can pass on useful important health information, and the ophthalmologist can later tell the doctor or optometrist about the results of your visit and any tests performed.

If you don’t have a referral, neither Medicare nor private health insurance will contribute to the cost of your care.

In an emergency, such as an eye injury or sudden loss of vision, go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital immediately, or call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

How much will an ophthalmologist cost?

The costs of an ophthalmologist visit vary greatly, depending on the type of care you receive. Factors include whether it’s in hospital, whether you have private health insurance, and what the ophthalmologist charges.

Out of hospital care

If you see an ophthalmologist in their rooms, then Medicare will cover:

  • all of the costs if they bulk bill
  • some of the costs if they don’t bulk bill

You can't use private health insurance for out of hospital care.

Treatment in a public hospital using Medicare

If you are a public patient in a public hospital or clinic and use Medicare, the treatment is free.

Treatment in any hospital using private health insurance

If you use private health insurance for treatment in either a public hospital or a private hospital or clinic, you will be charged by the ophthalmologist and by the hospital. You might also be charged for diagnostic testing, such as pathology tests, x-rays and other forms of imaging (such as an MRI, PET or CT scan), and by other doctors who provide you care, such as an anaesthetist. If you have private health insurance, it may cover some of these costs.

Asking about costs

It can be expensive to see a specialist, such as an ophthalmologist.

Before you go for the first time, ask the ophthalmologist or their staff about the costs. You can also ask what Medicare will cover.

If you plan to use private health insurance, you can also contact your health fund.

If the costs are too high, you can:

  • ask the ophthalmologist or their staff for a reduced rate
  • consider another ophthalmologist or health service
  • talk to your GP about other options such as a different type of treatment

Optometrists, orthoptists and ophthalmologists: What’s the difference?

Optometrists are different from ophthalmologists. They can prescribe and fit glasses and contact lenses. They are also trained in screening for serious eye conditions such as glaucoma, but they are not doctors. Optometrists can give advice on visual problems and treat minor eye problems but will refer you to an ophthalmologist for the diagnosis and treatment of more serious eye conditions.

Like optometrists, orthoptists are not doctors. They are allied healthcare professionals who specialise in assessing and managing eye movement disorders, such as double vision and squints (strabismus) in children and adults. Their role includes caring for people with eye diseases, such as diabetic retinopathy, as well as people with low vision and neurological vision disorders.

Ophthalmologists often work in teams with other healthcare professionals to provide the best care for their patients.

Resources and support

  • Good vision for life provides advice for care of your eyes, problems and diseases.
  • The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO) provides a tool to find an ophthalmologist. You can use the advanced search to find specific areas of specialisation.
  • Optometry Australia represents the largest community of optometrists in Australia, giving expert advice and support in eye health and vision care for the Australian community.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: January 2023

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