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Bringing Clarity to the World of Specialist Eye Care: Your Ophthalmologist

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Vision health, like the rest of your health, involves regular maintenance in the form of eye exams from an eye health professional as well as good general health care. After age 65, good eye health care is even more important to maintaining your good quality of life, in particular for activities that require good vision, like driving. 

Like many Canadians, you may see either an optometrist or a general ophthalmologist for your regular eye exams while your eyes are healthy. Unfortunately, eye conditions or disorders can develop in spite of a good eye health care program. For example, two of the most common causes of vision loss and blindness – cataracts and glaucoma – can arise for no known reason or because of risk factors that are outside of your control, like your family history. When things go wrong with your eyes, you may be referred to a specialist ophthalmologist for expert care and treatment of your eye condition.

General Ophthalmologist or Specialist?

All ophthalmologists are eye physicians and surgeons. They are medical doctors who are licensed and specially trained to diagnose and treat anything that goes wrong with the eye.

General (or comprehensive) ophthalmologists provide eye examinations and primary eye health care as well as treatment for many eye disorders. General ophthalmologists may also perform surgery for some eye conditions.

Specialized Eye Care

Specialist ophthalmologists have additional medical training and treat only certain conditions or parts of the eye. Depending on your particular eye disease or condition, you may be referred to see one of the following types of ophthalmologist:

  • Retina specialist: The retina is the inner layer of the back of the eye. You may see a retina specialist if you require treatment for diabetic eye disease or for damage to the retina due to disease or injury. Retina specialists may use medications or laser surgery to treat your condition.
  • Cornea specialist:  The cornea is the outer layer of the eye and cornea specialists treat infections, injuries and conditions like keratoconus (thinning of the cornea). Cornea surgeons use simple medications like antibiotic drops and complicated surgical techniques including tissue grafting and stem cell treatments to treat disease and disorders of the cornea.
  • Glaucoma specialist: Glaucoma is a blinding condition that is linked to raised pressures inside the eye and to optic nerve damage. The glaucoma specialist diagnoses and treats glaucoma with medication (drops) or surgical treatments.
  • Cataract surgeon: Cataracts are cloudy or opaque lenses inside the eye. There is no medical treatment for cataracts but cataract surgery is a quick and highly successful procedure that can restore vision by removing the lens and replacing it with a new one. In fact, cataract surgery is one of the most common surgical procedures done in Canada, which all ophthalmologists are trained in. In Canada, we are lucky to have a number of choices in terms of the type of lens and some of the specific techniques used to do cataract surgery. Some of these options are covered by Canadian provincial health insurance and some are not. If you are considering cataract surgery, it is a good idea to ask questions and to make sure that you understand your options and feel comfortable with your choices. 

With any luck, your eyes will remain healthy your whole life. If you do suffer from an eye disease or condition, an ophthalmologist is the medical expert who is best equipped to diagnose, treat and restore your vision. 

By Dr. Guillermo Rocha, MD, FRCS(C)

President, Canadian Ophthalmological Society