Comprehensive Ophthalmologist vs. Retina Specialist: What’s the Difference?
What is an Ophthalmologist?
The eye is a highly complex organ that requires specialized training for diagnostics, treatment, and care. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors that are specially trained in the medical and surgical care of all things related to eyes and vision.
Like all medical doctors, ophthalmologists must complete a four-year undergraduate program and a four-year medical school. After earning their medical degree, ophthalmologists are then required to complete a four year postgraduate residency training program in the medical and surgical care of ocular diseases. After the residency is complete, the doctor is known as a comprehensive or general ophthalmologist.
What Do Comprehensive Ophthalmologists Do?
Comprehensive ophthalmologists offer a broad range of services, including eye exams, vision evaluations, eye disease diagnostics, eyeglass/contact lens prescriptions, vision therapy, and surgical care, including treatments for cataract and glaucoma. One of the most important functions of an ophthalmologist is to provide complete exams for patients. In many cases, diseases that affect vision are easier to manage and treat when diagnosed in their earliest stages, which can only be accomplished through careful ophthalmology exams. As such, ophthalmologists are considered to be on the front line of vision health.
Within ophthalmology, there are several subspecialties that physicians can choose to pursue after completing their ophthalmology residency. Some of these subspecialties include:
- Retina and vitreous diseases
- Cornea and ocular surface
- Oculoplastics and orbital diseases
- Ocular oncology
- Pediatric ophthalmology
- Ophthalmic pathology
All of these require additional clinical and surgical training in the form of a fellowship, which is when a doctor receives additional training after completing the residency training for comprehensive ophthalmology to become an expert in a specific subfield.
The Retina Subspecialty of Ophthalmology
The retina is a very small, thin multilayered tissue that lies along the back wall of the eye. It contains millions of light-sensitive cells known as rods and cones. When light passes through the lens of the eye and stimulates the rods and cones, these specialized cells translate the light into neural impulses that are then sent to the brain via the optic nerve. The brain’s visual processing center deciphers these impulses and organizes the visual information into the image we see.
When the retina is damaged by disease, age, or injury, it can cause a broad spectrum of vision problems, including blindness. Some retinal conditions, such as age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy, are very common. Because of the retina’s complexity, delicate nature, and importance for vision, these diseases are best diagnosed and managed by an ophthalmologist who has gone through the extensive additional training required for retinal care.
The study of the retina has become a very popular subspecialty in ophthalmology. Many ophthalmologists are driven to become retina specialists because it allows them to save people’s vision while working with some of the most cutting-edge medical technologies. The retina subspecialty of ophthalmology also offers many opportunities to participate in exciting research and clinical trials.
In some cases, patients may only need to see a comprehensive ophthalmologist to keep their vision health on track. However, a comprehensive ophthalmologist will often refer a patient to a retina specialist if they detect various signs of retinal conditions, including:
- Tears or breaks in the retina
- Retinal detachment
- Bleeding in the retina or vitreous
- Retinal edema (swelling in the retina)
- Abnormal blood vessel growth in the eye
- Blockages in the retinal blood vessels
- Age-related degeneration of the retina
- Intraocular tumors
- Visually distorting traction or membranes on the retina
- Evidence of intravitreal infection
Retina specialists use advanced diagnostic tools and imaging techniques to diagnose and monitor retinal conditions. They also provide many vision-saving treatment options right in their own offices, including eye injections, laser surgery, and photodynamic therapy. When necessary, they perform exceptionally delicate retinal surgeries, such as a vitrectomy, in a specialized operating room supplied with equipment to treat ocular diseases.