To See Or Not To See - New Law Would Allow Optometrists To Perform Surgery

Mar 21, 2017

House Bill 36 would allow optometrists to do certain surgical procedures.
Credit Dave DeWitt / WUNC

Optometrists and ophthalmologists don’t see eye to eye on this proposal.

The bill under consideration in the state house would allow optometrists to perform certain kinds eye surgery, including procedures that only medically trained ophthalmologists may treat under current law.

Tom Fetzer, a lobbyist for the North Carolina Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, said the new law would be a bad idea.

"We contend that House Bill 36 is a radical and dangerous departure from current laws governing who can and cannot perform surgery in the state of North Carolina," he said.

North Carolina would be following the lead of Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Louisiana – states that have passed similar legislation. Under House Bill 36, North Carolina optometrists with additional specialized training would be able to perform laser surgery on glaucoma patients.

To be sure, the bill still has a long list of procedures that optometrists would not be allowed to perform.

Yet, with eye care and treatments always evolving, Dr. Cynthia Bradford, president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology, said the bill would not do enough to protect patients.

"There will be new procedures coming out and none of those will be excluded," she said.

Supporters of the legislation say it would make relatively routine types of eye care and procedures more accessible and affordable to North Carolinians who might otherwise have to travel too far to reach an ophthalmologist.

Dr. Greg Murphy is a state representative from Pitt County. While not an ophthalmologist, he is a medically trained urological surgeon who opposes House Bill 36. He said optometrists are excellent at what they do, but any extra training they would undergo cannot compare to the formal medical training ophthalmologists must complete.

"Thirty-two hours of training versus four to five years of surgical training where they, not only don't train in just a few procedures, they train in the full entire range of diseases and treatments for the eye,” he said. "It's really, truly not a comparison of quality."

The bill currently is working its way through house committees.