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What is an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a physician who specializes in medical and surgical care of eye disorders.  This includes clinic visits, in-office procedures, surgery, and laser procedures. Fellowships include cornea, glaucoma, retina, oculoplastics, pediatrics, neuro-ophthalmology, pathology, and uveitis.  

Why did I choose ophthalmology?

Ophthalmology offers a nice blend of medical and surgical therapies in one specialty.  Time spent in clinic is always hands on whether you are examining patient with microscopes, using innovative diagnostic equipment, or performing office based procedures.  The surgeries are delicate outpatient procedures that usually are less than an hour in length. A day as an ophthalmologist can be quite diverse from treating patients with complex medical pathology to seeing healthy patients for refractive surgery or cosmetics.  In comparison to other surgical medical specialties, ophthalmology usually offers a nice work-life balance. Most ophthalmologists do take trauma call and see inpatient consults at hospitals, but thankfully there are few true ophthalmic emergencies that require you to go to the hospital in the middle of the night.  At the end of a day, the most rewarding aspect of my field is giving people their vision back.

A day in the life of an ophthalmology resident

All programs run a little differently, but they all follow a similar structure which includes academics, clinic, surgery, and call.  Although the lifestyle of an ophthalmologist is often thought of as more traditional work hours, residency is much different. I work Monday-Friday from 7:00am until 5-7:00pm.  I have a total of six hours of academics each week broken into 3 different days. In my program I am in the operating room 3-4 half days a week and in clinic the other half of each day.  I also take 14 weeks of hospital call each year, which includes nights, weekends, and holidays.

My schedule does vary depending on what rotation I am on, which rotate on a monthly basis.  Most of my months are general ophthalmology, but throughout my training I rotate in cornea, retina, oculoplastics, glaucoma, pediatrics, and neuro-ophthalmology.  On general ophthalmology I am performing cataract surgery and general eye exams. During my cornea month I perform corneal transplants and treat medical disease of the ocular surface.  Pediatric rotations are filled with ocular misalignment surgeries and prescribing glasses for predominantly children 18 years of age and under. On retina I treat diabetic eye complications and macular degeneration with lasers and injections as well as surgery to repair retinal detachments.  Eyelid lifts are the bread and butter cases of oculoplastics which can be medical or cosmetic. Neuro-ophthalmology generally involves medical treatments of neurologic diseases affecting the eyes or visual pathway.

How to become an ophthalmology resident

Ophthalmology is one of the most competitive medical specialties, thus it is important to maintain a high GPA in medical school and obtain high scores on the USMLE or COMLEX (MD and DO board exams, respectively).  The second most important strategy to match ophthalmology is to rotate at the residency programs you are interested in gaining acceptance to. When you are rotating at the programs you like, be helpful to the residents and attendings.  Demonstrate your interest in the field by asking insightful questions and having a basic knowledge of common ophthalmic conditions and surgeries. Research absolutely helps, especially when applying to allopathic (MD) programs. Networking and getting a strong letter of recommendation, especially from a well-known ophthalmologist goes a long way.

How long does it take to become a fully licensed ophthalmologist?

To become a fully licensed ophthalmologist you must complete a bachelor degree, 4 years of medical school, a transitional intern year, and 3 years of a ophthalmology residency.  For most, that’s a minimum of 12 years of training after high school. After residency there is the option to further specialize by pursuing a fellowship. Most fellowships are 1 year, with the exception of oculoplastics and surgical retina which are 2 years.   Approximately 50% of ophthalmology residents continue onto fellowships. I personally will be completing a cornea fellowship.

Emily Washek, D.O.