A career as an ophthalmologist will suit you if you're scientifically-minded, want to work with a whole range of medical staff and patients of all ages and are committed to helping others

Ophthalmologists are medically trained doctors with specialist skills in the diagnosis, treatment, management and prevention of diseases of the eye and visual system. They manage patients of all ages, from premature babies to the elderly, with acute and long-term eye conditions.

As an ophthalmologist you'll deal with a range of conditions, including cataracts, glaucoma, squints, eye injuries, infectious eye diseases and degenerative conditions resulting from ageing. You'll work in outpatient clinics, the operating theatre conducting surgery, laser eye surgery clinics and community clinics. There's also a limited amount of ward-based work available.

You can also work as a medical ophthalmologist if you're trained in general medicine as well as ophthalmology. As a medical ophthalmologist, you'll manage eye disorders that are specifically related to whole-body disease, such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and stroke. You'll treat the patient as a whole - not just their eye condition.

Responsibilities

As an ophthalmologist you'll need to:

  • assess and examine patients in order to make a diagnosis
  • manage ophthalmic conditions, taking into account both the medical and psychological aspects of patient care
  • manage busy general outpatient clinics, emergency eye clinics and specialist clinics
  • do occasional ward rounds (most ophthalmic patients have day surgery and don't stay in hospital overnight)
  • work as part of a multidisciplinary team that includes optometrists, orthoptists and nurses, as well as with specialists such as neurologists, ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeons and paediatricians
  • operate equipment such as ophthalmoscopes, slit lamps and lenses
  • carry out eye surgery using, for example, an operating microscope, small incision (keyhole) surgery and laser surgery
  • provide advice and reassurance to patients and family members
  • educate patients to help them understand their medical condition
  • handle legal documentation for the certification of patients as blind or partially sighted
  • support health promotion and disease prevention activities.

Medical ophthalmologists will also have expertise in immunosuppression, neurology and cardiovascular medicine, and will manage areas such as diabetes retinal screening programmes. They may also use therapeutic procedures, such as laser therapy and intraocular injections.

As a consultant ophthalmologist you'll also need to:

  • teach and train junior doctors and other healthcare professionals and lead members of the ophthalmology team
  • get involved in research
  • manage resources and practice development or lead on specific aspects of care.

Salary

  • The basic starting salary for junior hospital doctor trainees at foundation training level is £26,614 in the first year, rising to £30,805 in the second year.
  • As a trainee at specialty level you can earn between £36,461 and £46,208. Salaries for specialty doctors range from £37,923 to £70,718.
  • The salary for newly-qualified consultants starts at £76,761, rising to £103,490 for consultants with 10 to 19 years' experience. Consultants may apply for local and national Clinical Excellence Awards and are able to supplement their salary by working in private practice.

Figures relate to the pay and conditions of medical doctors within the NHS.

Income data from NHS Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You may need to work extra hours, especially as a junior doctor, and be on an on-call rota. Night work is unusual and out-of-hours work not as onerous as it is in other medical specialties.

There are opportunities for part-time work and job sharing. Staff, associate specialist and specialty (SAS) doctors often work in outpatient departments on a sessional basis or part time, combining ophthalmology with general practice. Consultants in community eye care may also work in GP practices.

What to expect

  • You'll work in operating theatres, outpatient clinics and community care settings. You may work for extensive periods in rooms with low-level lighting.
  • Ophthalmology is a popular specialty with those who wish to work part time.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK and competition for consultant posts is high. There are also opportunities to work abroad.
  • You may need to travel to attend international meetings, see international patients or operate in other countries.

Qualifications

To become an ophthalmologist, you'll need to start by taking a degree in medicine recognised by the General Medical Council (GMC), which usually takes five to six years to complete. If you've already got a degree in a subject other than medicine (usually a 2:1 or above in a science-related subject) you can apply for a four-year accelerated medical graduate entry programme (GEP).

You'll then need to complete a two-year foundation training programme, common to all medical graduates, where you'll work in hospitals as a junior doctor on a rotational basis in different departments that may include ophthalmology. On successful completion, you'll be awarded a Foundation Achievement of Competence Document (FACD).

After this, you must apply for ophthalmologist specialist training (OST), which takes seven years to complete. You'll also need to complete the Fellowship in Ophthalmology (FRCOphth) examinations from the Royal College of Ophthalmologists (RCOphth) before the end of your training.

The first two years of specialist training (ST1 and ST2) involve gaining the general clinical skills of an ophthalmologist and basic knowledge of conditions covered by the specialty. This may include working in general and specialist clinics, casualty work and theatre sessions. You'll need to take Part 1 of the FRCOphth by the end of ST2.

You'll then progress onto ST3, where you'll become proficient in assessing patients for glasses and gain your Refraction Certificate. Years ST4 to ST7 cover more advanced training, including using laser technology. You'll need to take Part 2 of the FRCOphth by the end of ST7.

Once you've successfully completed the full seven years, you'll be awarded the Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT) and can then join the specialty register and begin applying for consultant posts. See the RCOphth for full details on education and training.

For information on training to become a medical ophthalmologist, visit the Joint Royal Colleges of Physicians Training Board website.

For details on the qualifications and training required to be a doctor, see hospital doctor.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • communication skills, including empathy and sensitivity
  • good stereoscopic vision and professional health requirements in line with the GMC
  • practical hand skills and good hand-eye coordination
  • problem-solving and high-level decision-making skills
  • the ability to work as part of a multidisciplinary team
  • leadership skills
  • the ability to work under pressure
  • organisational, time management and planning skills.

Work experience

Entry to medical school is competitive and you'll need to do some work experience or a placement in areas relevant to medicine to get a place. This could be through work experience at your local hospital, GP surgery or nursing home, or through work shadowing a doctor. This experience shows your commitment to becoming a doctor and provides insight into the physical and emotional demands of working in medicine.

While studying medicine, choose ophthalmology as a component/special study module and consider an elective placement in ophthalmology in the UK or abroad. Visit your local eye hospital or department and speak to ophthalmic staff.

There are a limited number of prizes and awards made to undergraduates to help fund electives in ophthalmology. Check with your medical school for individual medical school awards or see the RCOphth website for details of what it offers.

Employers

The majority of ophthalmologists are employed by the NHS. Some work for private hospital companies and there are increasing numbers of ophthalmologists working as laser eye surgeons in the private sector.

Some consultants also undertake a wide range of pro bono work for the Royal Colleges (e.g. RCOphth), the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and other government bodies.

There are also opportunities to work overseas, where there is high demand for primary care and medical ophthalmologists.

Ophthalmologists may also become medical representatives for pharmaceutical companies or companies dealing with ophthalmic instruments.

There are also opportunities to work for the armed forces.

Look for job vacancies at:

Vacancies are also listed on the websites of private hospitals – see Private Healthcare UK for a list.

See the Ophthalmic Directory for a list of approved eye units in the UK.

Professional development

As a qualified ophthalmologist, you'll need to continue learning and developing your skills and knowledge throughout your career. Continuing professional development (CPD) is essential if you want to remain on the GMC register. CPD activities can include attending courses, conferences, meetings and workshops, as well as undertaking research and peer-reviewing journal papers.

You'll initially spend one or two years training in a specific area to gain a sub-specialism. Specialist areas can include:

  • cataract and refractive surgery
  • glaucoma treatment
  • paediatric ophthalmology
  • medical retina ophthalmology
  • neuro-ophthalmology.

Medical ophthalmologists tend to specialise in areas such as diabetes, neuro-ophthalmology, ocular inflammatory disease and medical retinal disease.

Skills training courses are provided by organisations such as:

If you wish to integrate more formal teaching into your work, search for qualifications in medical education.

Career prospects

The majority of ophthalmologists become consultants. Competition for jobs is fierce as there are many applicants for each job. As a consultant you'll gradually gain more experience in your clinical duties and take on more responsibilities. You'll be responsible for all the patients in your care and will also supervise and train junior doctors.

With experience, there are some opportunities to move into managerial roles, initially as a medical lead (a lead consultant for a team), then as a clinical director (a lead consultant for a department) and later on as a medical director (a lead consultant for a hospital trust).

If you don't want to become a consultant, or are unable to work as one, you can work as a specialty doctor. You're likely to have fewer management responsibilities in this role.

There are also opportunities to follow a career as an academic ophthalmologist. You'll usually take a higher degree during your training and also carry out a lot of research through fellowships.

If you're interested in teaching future doctors, you may become a director of medical education, training programme director or associate dean in charge of the entire training programme.

There are also opportunities to work in the private sector or abroad.