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How do you become an eye surgeon or ophthalmologist?

I quite frequently get asked by my patients … so how do you become an ophthalmologist or eye surgeon? I find it a bit bemusing that many people still don’t understand that an ophthalmologist is a medical specialist in the same way a cardiologist or neurosurgeon or orthopaedic surgeon is. I think it may partly stem from a misunderstanding that optometrists and ophthalmologists do the same university course- they don’t. Optometrists study optometry and ophthalmologists study medicine i.e. ophthalmologists become medical doctors first before they specialize in eye surgery. In the end, optometrists and ophthalmologists both help look after your eyes but the roles are different. For example, if you need eye surgery you will go to an ophthalmologist and not an optometrist.

So back to how I became an ophthalmologist…..after finishing medical school, I was an intern and resident at St Vincents Hospital in Melbourne. Like other new doctors, I worked in many different areas over the 3 years I was at St Vincents such as anaesthetics, emergency, intensive care, neurosurgery, gasteroenterology, rheumatology and general medicine. So yes, I have done the things you see in those medical TV dramas- I have sprinted down the corridor of a hospital to get to a cardiac arrest, I have stitched up people in the emergency department after they got banged up and I have unfortunately had to tell people bad news about their loved ones and have consoled them as they cried.

To become a specialist in any area, heart, lung, brain, eye, then requires you to get onto a specialist training program. I had to sit an entrance exam and then interview with many other applicants to get a job as an ophthalmology registrar. There were no guarantees at all- passing the exam did not mean you got to specialize in what you want. I was lucky to get a job on my first go and became a registrar at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital. For the next 4 years I worked and trained to be an ophthalmologist and then I had to sit another set of exams to prove my competency as a specialist. For my final year of training, I chose to go overseas to the USA to subspecialize in the area of the eye called the cornea- this is the front focusing lens of the eye and the part of the eye we do laser vision correction on.

It’s been nearly 14 years since then, so when my patients ask me how long I have been practicing I say I have been a doctor for 21 years and a specialist for nearly 14 years. And yes it took me 14 years from the time I finished high school to become a specialist…. Frankly I feel old even thinking about it :)

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