Would you allow someone who is not a medical doctor or trained surgeon to operate on your heart, kidneys or lungs? Of course you wouldn’t. Yet some Alabama legislators are trying to change the law to allow people who are not medical doctors or trained surgeons to operate on your eyes.
It sounds like a bad – and unsafe – idea because it is. Unfortunately, these legislators might succeed because many are confused about the differences and distinctions between ophthalmologists and optometrists.
There are big differences between the two. First, ophthalmologists are medical doctors and optometrists are not. Optometrists do not go to medical school, nor are they required to complete a surgical residency.
Ophthalmologists, on the other hand, must complete medical school and then four-years of additional training in a residency program, three of which must be spent in ophthalmology. Many ophthalmologists go on to do an additional one or two years of further advanced training. Only after this intensive education and training can ophthalmologists enter independent practice and perform surgery on your eyes.
While optometrists are highly valued members of the eye care team, they simply do not have the medical education or training required to become an eye surgeon. Only ophthalmologists spend at least 12 years learning and training to perform eye surgery.
Despite this difference, there are two bills in the Alabama Legislature – Senate Bill 174 and House Bill 402 – that would allow optometrists to perform a multitude of eye surgeries, even though they have no training to do so and are not medical doctors. Both bills would change existing law so optometrists could operate with scalpels, needles and lasers on your eyes, as well as by burning and freezing sensitive tissue near and around your eyes.
There are potentially blinding or even fatal complications that could arise from these surgeries. That’s precisely why these delicate procedures should only be performed by a medical doctor – an ophthalmologist – whose clinical training and surgical expertise allows them to manage such situations.
Alabama isn’t the first state to consider allowing optometrists to perform eye surgeries. A similar proposal in Vermont led to a state study that determined it “cannot conclude that optometrists are properly trained in and can safely perform the proposed advanced procedures.” Not surprisingly, Vermont decided against the proposal.
Despite the differences in their training and education, optometrists and ophthalmologists often work together to treat patients, sometimes as a team in the same office. Bills like Senate Bill 174 and House Bill 402 that pit optometrists against ophthalmologists in a tug-of-war over who can perform eye surgeries are no way to serve the best interests of Alabamians.
Instead, legislators should ensure that only medical doctors who are trained to perform eye surgeries can perform eye surgeries in Alabama. It’s really that simple and will help protect the only eyes you’ll ever have.
Dr. Read is board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology and has been selected as one of the “Best Doctors in America” beginning in 2005. He is the current President of the Alabama Academy of Ophthalmology.