Legislature considers letting untrained eye doctors operate

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The Florida legislature is considering a bill that would allow optometrists, who are not qualified doctors or surgeons, to perform eye surgery.

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All doctors take an oath to protect patients, so it’s disheartening that some Florida lawmakers support legislation that would put patients at risk. The Legislature is considering Senate Bill 876 and House Bill 631, which would allow optometrists – who are not qualified doctors or surgeons – to perform surgeries on, in and around of the eye with lasers and scalpels.

Ophthalmologists are physicians and surgeons with over 17,000 hours of training specifically for eye surgery. They complete four years of medical studies, followed by a one-year hospital internship and a three-year surgical residency. Most then complete an additional one to two years of postgraduate training and nearly a decade or more of postgraduate training to become an eye surgeon.

Optometrists, on the other hand, undergo approximately 2,000 hours of training spread over four years of optometry school. All surgical training consists of a crash course of 32 hours that can be completed in a weekend.

Regardless of what optometrists might say, there is no such thing as “minor” eye surgery. Every eye surgery carries risks and should be approached with the utmost care and caution by experienced surgeons who have years of extensive training. Surgery should never be trivialized as a “minor procedure”.

Just ask a patient of mine who reported recurring spots in her vision to her optometrist. The optometrist told her that these spots would go away on their own. But her ophthalmologist found tears in her retina. Because they were misdiagnosed, it left him with permanent vision problems in his right eye.

This patient’s case is not unique. It stems directly from a lack of education and training. According to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, there is a significant increase in the incidence of follow-up surgery required when certain types of glaucoma laser surgery are performed by an optometrist compared to those performed by an ophthalmologist. .

Make no mistake, optometrists are valued members of the eye care team and provide important services such as eye exams and contact lens fittings. But they are not qualified doctors or surgeons. And granting them surgical privileges through legislation is irresponsible and dangerous. No surgical procedure can be performed safely by anyone without the nearly decade-long clinical training and medical education that is essential to ensuring patient safety.

The Florida legislature has a chance to protect patients and their safety. But first they must listen to patients, doctors and the science behind the safety requirements in place, despite misinformation and clever attempts to draft bills that would grant surgical privileges to those who are not sufficiently trained.

Training, education, and clinical experience protect those we serve, and Florida law is carefully crafted to do just that. It does not need to be changed to create two separate surgical safety standards. The Florida Legislature must stand firm against SB 876 and HB 631.

Sarah Wellik, MD is president of the Florida Society of Ophthalmology; and Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology and Director of Glaucoma Service at UHealth Plantation, Bascom Palmer Eye Institute and University of Miami School of Medicine.