If you have an eye disease or visual disorder, you may be referred to an ophthalmologist – also known as an eye doctor or eye surgeon. Ophthalmologists are specialists who handle all the medical aspects of eye care, including treatment, surgery and the prescription of contact lenses and glasses.
What is an ophthalmologist?
An ophthalmologist is a specialist doctor who diagnoses and manages eye conditions and disorders of the visual system. They are experts in medical treatment, surgery and microsurgery for eye conditions and diseases.
They can prescribe spectacles or contact lenses, as well as medicines for eye problems.
In Australia, ophthalmologists need to complete at least 5 years of specialist training after they become a doctor. Most are Fellows of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Ophthalmologists (RANZCO).
How do they differ from optometrists and orthoptists?
Optometrists are university-trained eye care professionals who examine people’s eyes and prescribe and fit glasses and contact lenses. They can give advice on visual problems and screen for conditions such as glaucoma. Optometrists can treat minor eye problems, but will refer you to an ophthalmologist for the diagnosis and treatment of more serious eye conditions.
Orthoptists are 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.
What conditions can ophthalmologists treat?
People are referred to an ophthalmologist when they have:
- partial or complete loss of vision
- eye injuries, pain or inflammation
- eye conditions, such as glaucoma
- health conditions that can affect their eyes, including diabetes and high blood pressure
- poor vision that needs specialist care
Ophthalmologists are surgeons, and can do:
- cataract surgery, in which they replace the lens of a person's eye
- refractive or laser surgery, which involves reshaping the cornea to correct short-sightedness, long-sightedness or astigmatism
- surgery to correct misalignment of the eyes, or strabismus
- surgery to remove cancers, such as melanoma, from the eye
- treatment to repair damage caused by an eye injury
Where do ophthalmologists work?
Ophthalmologists see their patients in a clinic or surgery. Many operate in both public and private hospitals. Most of them work in cities.
Some ophthalmologists work in an eye care team, liaising with optometrists and other healthcare professionals to provide the best care for a person with a chronic eye condition.
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 one who has a special interest, such as paediatric (children’s) ophthalmology.
In an emergency, such as an eye injury or sudden loss of vision, go to your nearest hospital immediately.
How much does an ophthalmologist cost?
The cost varies, depending on how much the ophthalmologist charges, the type of care you receive, whether or not it takes place in a hospital, and whether you have private health insurance.
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 any private health insurance for out of hospital care.
Treatment in a public hospital using Medicare
If you are treated in a public hospital or clinic and use Medicare, it is free. Medicare will cover all your costs.
Treatment in any hospital using private health insurance
If you use private health insurance to be treated 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 pathology tests, x-rays and other forms of imaging, and by other doctors you see, such as an anaesthetist. Your private health insurance will cover some of these costs.
Asking about costs
It can be expensive to see specialists.
Before you go to your first appointment, ask your 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, your options are:
- to ask the ophthalmologist or their staff about a reduction
- to consider another ophthalmologist or health service
- to talk to your doctor about options such as a different type of treatment
It’s a good idea to get a referral from your doctor to see the ophthalmologist. That way, your doctor can pass on useful information, and the ophthalmologist can later tell the doctor about your visit. Also, if you don’t have a referral, neither Medicare nor private health insurance will contribute to the cost of your care.
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Last reviewed: August 2018