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Alabamians voice grave concern over legislation that allows eye surgery by non-medical doctors

Bill Britt

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A recent statewide survey of 500 likely voters found that an overwhelming majority of those polled oppose a proposed change in state law that would allow individuals who are not medical doctors to perform eye surgery. Nearly 80 percent of Alabamians oppose such a change, according to the survey.

Of those surveyed, 74 percent of Alabama voters would be gravely concerned, and an additional 21 percent of voters would be very concerned for a family member to have eye surgery by someone who is not a medical doctor.

Senate Bill 114, if passed, allows optometrists to perform hundreds of eye surgeries, which are currently only permitted by ophthalmologists.

What is the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?

“Optometrists are eye care professionals who provide primary vision care ranging from sight testing and correction to the diagnosis, treatment and management of vision changes,” according to Medical Eye Center.

An optometrist is not a medical doctor.

“An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor and differ from optometrists in their levels of training and in what they can diagnose and treat. As a medical doctor who has completed college and at least eight years of additional medical training, an ophthalmologist is licensed to practice medicine and surgery. An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats all eye diseases, performs eye surgery,” according to Medical Eye Center.

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What is the Difference Between Optometry and Ophthalmology?

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Under SB114, optometrists who have not completed the same training as an ophthalmologist will be permitted to conduct eye surgeries on the eye and eyelid using medical instruments such as lasers, needles and scalpels.

“The medical community in Alabama is very concerned about allowing people who do not have a medical degree and the necessary surgical experience to operate on and around the eyes. The margin of error when using needles, scalpels or lasers on the eye is so small, that a mistake of just one millimeter could have devastating results for the patient. The patient safety and quality surgical outcomes would be threatened if surgery were allowed by anyone who is not a medical doctor with proper training,” said Dr. Stephen Kelly, president of the Alabama Academy of Ophthalmology.

Optometrists proposing the bill say it will give greater access to eye surgery for Alabamians. However, current statistics show that 91 percent of Alabamians are within 30 minutes or less of a highly-trained ophthalmologist.

According to data provided to APR, 99.7 percent of Alabamians can access an ophthalmologist in about the same time, if not faster, then they can get to a Walmart Supercenter.

“The issue of inadequate patient access is simply not accurate,” Kelly said. “Alabamians have great access to eye surgery from highly trained ophthalmologists. There is no need for patients to risk permanent eye damage or loss of vision for convenience sake. As medical providers, our top priority is patient safety, and SB 114 would unnecessarily place patients at risk.”

The survey found only 9 percent of voters say they favor a change in law to allow eye surgery by persons other than licensed medical doctors. And only 10 percent of voters support a proposal that would allow a non-physician regulatory board to determine the qualifications and training requirements to perform eye surgery

The survey was conducted April 1 to 3 with a random sample of 500 Alabama registered voters likely to participate in the 2020 general election.

The margin of error is +/- 4.4 percent.

 

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