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Assembling a Team of Macular Degeneration Specialists

A long-term disease can be challenging, and since it can change over time, it’s important to have a care team in place to meet a variety of needs as symptoms progress or situations change. With macular degeneration, it’s often not enough just to have an eye doctor. Living with a chronic, progressive, or serious vision condition can have practical, social, personal, and emotional effects on a person, and a care team with specialized professionals helps you address each area of your life in terms of the condition and help you adapt accordingly.

Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist is a doctor (allopathic or osteopathic, ie, MD or DO) specializing in eye care and vision. Because an ophthalmologist has gone through medical school, they are licensed to practice medicine and surgery.1 They can diagnose and treat eye diseases, fit glasses and contacts, and perform eye surgeries. Like other medical doctors, they might also do research in areas related to vision.

Retina specialist

A retina specialist is a medical doctor (either an MD or DO) who has also gone through special training in ophthalmology and vitreoretinal training. In addition to four years of medical school and a one-year internship, they also complete a three-year ophthalmology residency and a one or two-year retina-vitreous fellowship.2 Retina specialists focus on the retina and can help diagnose and treat retinal and vitreous disorders and diseases.

Optometrist

Optometrists complete 4 years of optometry school in addition to the 4 years of college, in order to earn the OD degree. They are not a medical doctor, so they cannot perform eye injections or surgery, but they can monitor chronic eye conditions, prescribe or update glasses or contact lens prescriptions, prescribe medications for certain eye diseases, and provide eye exams and screenings. They can be especially valuable if you live in an area without many ophthalmologists and can fill an important role in your care team.

Occupational therapist

The aim of an occupational therapist is to help individuals with disabilities, cognitive or physical challenges, or injuries, live full lives. This can include developing interventions and adaptations to help them maintain independence, improve their ability to do daily activities, and promote overall health.3 Their focus is holistic, looking at both the individual and the environment, and what the individual needs; they then work with the individual to jointly come up with a plan.

Certified low-vision therapists

A certified low-vision therapist (CLVT) is an occupational therapist specifically certified in low-vision therapy and rehabilitation. Low vision is a condition in which a person’s vision is poor enough that it makes everyday activities difficult, and cannot be corrected with corrective lenses or surgery (this includes macular degeneration). In general, patients with vision worse than “20/70” on the eye chart are considered to have low vision. In order to apply for certification, therapists have to meet several criteria4:

  • They need to have experience working with individuals who have eye diseases or conditions that severely limit their vision or visual field
  • They should have experience and expertise with assistive technology for vision, as well as low-vision devices and aids
  • They need to have a history of working with ophthalmologists and other vision professionals
  • Their experience with clients with visual disorders should be varied, and not limited to one disease

Counselors and social workers

The vision loss and its accompanying effects on an individual’s life can cause feelings of loss, sadness, and frustration – all of which are normal. Your mental and emotional health are just as important as your physical health and vision. Counselors can help you adjust to any limitations or work through feelings you might have about changes that have arisen from your macular degeneration. Social workers are wonderful resources that can help you navigate health benefits you might have because of a low-vision or MD diagnosis, as well as local resources to help you with daily activities.

Care team communication

Living with macular degeneration can mean different things at different times, and you might find your needs change during the course of the condition. A care team comprised of trained individuals in an array of specialties can help you with your medical, personal, emotional, and everyday needs, no matter what they might be. Open communication among the care team members is important in order to help them support you, and encouraging cooperation and coordination among specialists can help ensure the best possible outcomes. They’re all there for you, and you’re an integral part of the team as well!

Jaime R. Herndon | December 2018
  1. American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Difference Between an Ophthalmologist, Optometrist, and Optician. 2011. https://aapos.org/terms/conditions/132. Accessed October 13, 2018.
  2. What Is a Retina Specialist? American Society of Retina Specialists. N.d. https://www.asrs.org/patients/what-is-a-retina-specialist. Accessed January 26, 2019.
  3. The American Occupational Therapy Association. What is Occupational Therapy? 2018. https://www.aota.org/Conference-Events/OTMonth/what-is-OT.aspx. Accessed October 13, 2018.
  4. The American Occupational Therapy Association. Specialty Certification in Low Vision. 2018. https://www.aota.org/Education-Careers/Advance-Career/Board-Specialty-Certifications/Low-vision.aspx. Accessed October 13, 2018.