Global Eye Doctor Shortage Growing

Ophthalmologist shortage expected to increase as populations age

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) More than 200,000 ophthalmologists are in practice around the world. However, the number of new eye doctors is not growing at a pace capable of meeting the needs of a large aging population.

Developing countries also are experiencing a shortage of ophthalmologists with 131 countries sharing fewer than 5 percent of total eye doctors.

"Talk to your optometrist about performing procedures instead."

Serge Resnikoff, a senior consultant with International Health and Development in Switzerland, called the situation "dire," and said that in a number of both developed and undeveloped countries it will be extremely challenging to train enough ophthalmologists to provide the care that will be needed in the coming years.

“It is necessary to begin aggressively training eye care teams now to alleviate both the current shortfall in developing countries and the anticipated shortfall in developed countries,” he said.

During the International Council of Ophthalmology survey, researchers mailed questionnaires to 213 specialist ophthalmic societies in 193 countries between March and April 2010 regarding growth of the profession. All but one agency responded.

They determined that in 2010 there were 205,000 ophthalmologists around the world, with half practicing in China, Japan, Russia, India, Brazil and the U.S. China had 28,338, or 21 doctors per million residents, while the U.S. had 25,152, or 83 per million residents.

Some countries such as Kiribati and Marshall Islands had none.

Other countries such as Burundi had so few eye doctors -- four for the whole country -- that researchers said there was not even one ophthalmologist available for each one million residents.

The average number of ophthalmologists varied depending on economic development, with low income countries averaging nine eye doctors available per one million residents compared to 79 per million in high income countries. The lowest averages were found in Sub-Saharan Africa, while formerly communist countries had the greatest concentrations of doctors.

Of the countries surveyed, 18 had more than 100 ophthalmologists practicing per million residents, while in 23 countries, fewer than one was available per the same number of residents.

Overall in 2010, the number of ophthalmologists grew by 1.2 percent with most of that growth happening in low income countries.

However, the survey found that the growth may not be enough to make up for the steadily increasing population over the age of 60, which will need a greater number of ophthalmologists.

Between 2009 and 2010, the population over the age of 60 grew by 3 percent in a sampling of countries, while the percentage of new eye doctors increased at the same rate -- 1.2 percent.

Researchers indicated that the growth in older populations could be particularly problematic for high income countries such as the U.S.

"There is not a shortage now in the U.S. but with the changing demographics of our population (increasingly aging) and with stagnant or shrinking residency positions in ophthalmology, one can easily foresee a shortage as demand for surgical eye care surges," noted Dr. Christopher Quinn, an optometrist with Omni Eye Associates.

"An expanded scope of practice for optometrists may help alleviate this potential shortage as optometrists take on a greater percentage of the medical, laser and minor surgical care of our nation’s population."

The research was recently published in the British Journal of Ophthalmology.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 29, 2012
Last Updated:
May 31, 2012