An optometrist can help detect eye conditions, including macular degeneration. But you may need to visit a different eye specialist, such as an ophthalmologist, to treat macular degeneration.
A few types of doctors are trained to help you with your eye health. Optometrists, who specialize in basic eye examinations and vision correction, are one of those types.
An optometrist is often the first to detect and diagnose eye conditions such as age-related macular degeneration (AMD). But they may refer you to another eye specialist, such as an ophthalmologist or a retina specialist, for more detailed diagnosis and treatment.
This article will explore how doctors diagnose macular degeneration and how your optometrist can or cannot help with associated vision issues.
An optometrist is like a primary care doctor for your eyes.
They perform eye examinations, diagnose and treat infections, offer advice on vision correction, and even perform some basic surgical procedures, such as laser correction for cataracts.
Optometrists are trained with a 4-year undergraduate program followed by another 4 years of professional training in a college of optometry. Optometrists who extend their education and training with additional residencies in specific areas may perform more services.
More complex eye diseases require more training, so an optometrist is not usually qualified to manage advanced vision disorders such as macular degeneration.
Ophthalmologists go through much more extensive training than optometrists — usually 12–14 years of training. And they are licensed to practice both medicine and surgery. This additional training and licensure means an ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat any type of eye condition, whereas optometrists are more limited.
Macular degeneration is a condition that happens when your retina (the tissue at the back of your eye that focuses light and produces sharp images) starts to break down. This condition can develop with age, and it leads to a blurring or loss of vision in the center part of your eye.
Optometrists typically perform your regular vision screenings or annual eye exams. As a part of these examinations, they will use eye drops to help dilate (open) your pupils to allow more light in.
This dilation helps your optometrist or ophthalmologist examine the rear area of your eye and could expose macular degeneration.
Retinal disorders and macular degeneration may appear at this level of testing, or your optometrist may suspect that you’re developing a problem in your retina or macula.
Additional testing, usually involving optical coherence tomography (OCT), is necessary to confirm a diagnosis and gauge how advanced the damage is.
Many optometrists’ offices now have OCT tools to help them interpret eye damage, so your optometrist may be able to perform that OCT themselves. But some might choose to refer you to an ophthalmologist for further examination and treatment.
AMD can’t be cured or reversed.
An optometrist might spot early signs or symptoms of this disease, but if they think you may have AMD, they might refer you to an ophthalmologist or a retina specialist for treatment and ongoing management.
Treatment for AMD includes injections of medications into your eye that must be done by a specially trained ophthalmologist. These medications are called anti-vascular endothelial growth factor (anti-VEGF) medications. They can’t cure or reverse AMD, but they can help slow or stop the progression of damage in some cases.
How insurers dictate the doctors you visit
Training and licensure are one factor in determining what kind of healthcare professional can diagnose, treat, and otherwise manage your health. Insurance coverage is another factor.
If you have health or vision insurance, your insurance company pays most of the costs of your care. As a result, your insurer has a say in who provides that care.
In some cases, insurers may limit the doctors you can visit to those in particular networks. But they can also help guide you to the best possible person for your condition by requiring you to go to a certain type of doctor or specialist in order to have your care covered.
While this is true of any condition, it’s especially noteworthy for macular degeneration. The complex nature of macular degeneration means that many vision insurance plans do not cover the ongoing management of this condition.
Instead, your regular health insurance company, which covers your overall medical care, will usually manage the costs and care associated with diagnosing and treating macular degeneration. This might mean you must go to a certain doctor, such as an ophthalmologist or a retina specialist, if you have macular degeneration.
Macular degeneration isn’t the only condition that can affect your retina or cause central vision loss.
Other conditions that can cause vision loss in the center of your eye or damage your retina include:
An optometrist usually performs routine eye and vision examinations, so they often diagnose common conditions such as:
An optometrist is the type of eye doctor that you may visit for regular vision and eye health screenings. While they may be able to diagnose macular degeneration, your optometrist may refer you to another eye specialist to help you treat and manage more complex eye conditions such as macular degeneration.