Most people think of surgery as very intricate and ultra-precise. One error-prone move could often prove fatal, or so the common image goes. So if you’re someone who already needs glasses to help you see, maybe this isn’t the career for you.
But do surgeons actually need good eyesight?
Yes, surgeons do need good eyesight because it helps minimize the time locating key structures and reducing the risk of surgical trauma. But just because a surgeon has bad uncorrected eyesight doesn’t mean they can’t work. As long as glasses or contacts improve their vision and don’t impact their work, it shouldn’t affect their career.
Of course, there are several complexities to this answer, so we’ll get into all that in this article.
Here’s what else we’ll cover:
- If surgeons need 20/20 vision
- What happens if you only have one eye
- How contacts and glasses can improve surgery
- Why doctors can still be successful despite poor eyesight
As a mature med student myself, and one who’s just been prescribed their very first set of glasses aged 35, this question is of particular interest.
Ready to learn more? Let’s go!
Why surgeons need good eyesight
As we’ve already mentioned, surgeons require good eyesight due to the nature of their jobs.
Unlike many other areas of medicine, surgery leans heavily on hand-eye coordination. Common surgical procedures like suturing, making incisions, and even using specific instruments to correctly identify, isolate and manipulate organs and structures, call for accurate vision.
Without good eyesight, the risk of making mistakes (and causing harm to patients) increases.
With tasks such as suturing, which involves fine needle work to close openings, surgeons need to be able to hold, grasp and manipulate several different tools.
While a lot of surgery is a skill that can be practiced by repeated exposure and training (on mannequins and simulators, away from patients), it’s incredibly difficult to do with poor vision.
Just imagine this sort of precise surgery being done by a blind doctor!
Related: How Do Med Students Practice Surgery? (Try-At-Home Examples!)
Can you be a surgeon with bad eyesight?
It’s possible you could be a surgeon in the future even if you do have bad eyesight. Thanks to the ongoing advancements in surgical robotics, coupled with developments in artificial intelligence (click here to see my opinions on this), surgeons might become simple machine operators rather than the scalpel-wielding specialists we see today.
One of the biggest innovations in the field is the da Vinci systems created by Intuitive.
These robot-assisted surgical machines can do major procedures across many surgical disciplines, including:
- Cardiac surgery
- Colorectal surgery
- Thoractic surgery
But while you may be fooled into thinking robotic surgery is something new, it’s actually been around in the USA and Europe for at least the past couple of decades (Source).
What makes it particularly useful for visually impaired surgeons are the camera arms that come with the surgical systems. These help magnify imaging and point to the precise locations of things like incisions. As well as providing a 3-D view of the surgical site that would otherwise be unavailable.
The surgeon only needs to control arms while seated at a computer console, aided by software technology, to minimize the chance of human error.
Do you need 20/20 to be a surgeon?
You do not need 20/20 to be a surgeon. As long as your vision can be corrected (more on this later) to give you 20/20, it doesn’t matter.
All 20/20 refers to is “normal visual acuity”. According to the American Optometric Association, even possessing 20/20 vision doesn’t necessarily mean you have perfect vision (Source).
It only indicates a sharpness or “clarity of vision” at distance. And that you can see clearly at 20 feet what can normally be seen.
You can also have natural 20/20 and be an absolutely terrible surgeon too of course!
Can you be a surgeon with glasses?
The good news is yes, you can definitely become a surgeon with glasses (assuming they correct your vision to within “normal” range). In fact, many top surgeons wear glasses, including the following:
- Bernard Devauchelle (French oral and maxillofacial surgeon best known for the first face transplant)
- Eric M. Genden (American head and neck cancer surgeon at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai New York)
- John R. Adler (American neurosurgeon and graduate at Harvard Medical School)
- Wirginia Maixner (Australian neurosurgeon and director of surgery at Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, Australia)
Also, one of my personal favorite surgeons and author of the book Do No Harm, Henry Marsh is a particularly inspiring neurosurgeon that has been wearing glasses throughout his esteemed career.
As you can see poor eyesight hasn’t held back any of these surgeons!
Do surgeons wear contacts?
Yes, some surgeons wear contacts. Deciding on contacts over glasses is a personal choice.
There’s also the option of Lasik too. Surgeons in favor of eye surgery!
As long as both options bring surgeons up to the visual standard required of an unrestricted driver’s license, there’s seemingly no issue.
As evidenced by this National Library of Medicine article from 2009!
Can you be a surgeon with one eye?
Just like you can drive with one eye, you can also perform surgery. As already mentioned, if your vision is adequate in that one eye, it shouldn’t deter you from the career.
Especially in orthopedics (or other fields operating in 2-D planes) where other visual cues can help you judge distance.
Possible complications of having one eye could be an issue, however, in the following scenarios:
- Microscope assisted surgery
These are sometimes off the table to single-eyed individuals because of impaired depth perception and the consistent use of slit lamps.
It’s best to check with the regulating bodies of the types of surgical specialties you’re interested in first to be doubly sure.
Having bad vision, as long as it can be corrected via the methods mentioned above, should never prevent you from becoming a surgeon if that’s your dream.
The requirements of the field are flexible enough to apply to a wide range of people – not just the able-bodied and the able-sighted!
If you’re interested in other physical demands of being a surgeon, specifically those relating to hands, make sure you check out the following article…
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.