Eye Doctors Explained: Ophthalmologist, Optometrist & Optician

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What are the 3 Types of Eye Doctors?

There are three types of eye care professionals who provide different services. They include:

  1. Ophthalmologists
  2. Optometrists
  3. Opticians 

All eye care professionals are focused on your vision. But an ophthalmologist, optometrist, and optician all provide different services. While some services may overlap, these professionals have different training and credentials.

If you’re not sure what services you need, visiting an ophthalmologist is a good place to start. After all, it does not hurt to pay a yearly visit to the ophthalmologist for a check-up.

Vision care is important, which is why it’s equally important to get the eye care services you need from the doctor with the right background. Here’s how to determine the key differences.

1. Ophthalmologists

An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor

They are more advanced eye doctors than optometrists and opticians because they have a higher level of training.5

Ophthalmologists complete about 12 to 13 years of training to receive their licenses. 

Typically, this involves four years of college and then at least eight years of more medical training.5

Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat all eye diseases, perform eye surgeries, and prescribe and fit glasses and contacts.

Ophthalmologists may also do scientific research on the causes of and cures for different eye disorders and diseases. 

Some ophthalmologists may also go on to complete one or two more years of in-depth training to specialize in a specific area. They are called subspecialists who may specialize in glaucoma, pediatrics, or neurology, among others. 5

Because ophthalmologists are medical doctors, they may also identify other underlying health issues that can affect patients’ vision and refer them to other doctors to receive the right treatment.5

2. Optometrists

Optometrists often work together with ophthalmologists. 

An optometrist is not a medical doctor, but they do receive a doctor of optometry (OD) degree after finishing three to four years of college and four years of optometry schooling.

They may complete an additional year of residency training to specialize in areas such as pediatrics, ocular disease, or vision rehabilitation.

Under Medicare, optometrists are recognized as physicians.6

An optometrist is licensed to test for and diagnose vision problems, as well as prescribe, treat, and help patients manage vision issues and changes.5 

They may also help patients develop prevention plans and perform vision therapy.6

What optometrists can and cannot do also varies by state.5

3. Opticians

Opticians are the technicians of eye doctors. They only need a high school diploma or equivalent.3

They are trained to design and fit eyeglass lenses and frames and contact lenses with the prescriptions that ophthalmologists or optometrists supply. 

Their primary job is to fill prescriptions.4 They do not test patients’ vision or write eye care prescriptions themselves. 

Opticians are also not trained to diagnose or treat eye diseases or practice eye care.5

Some opticians work in optometrist offices, while others work in other physician offices. They may also work in stores that sell glasses, contacts, visual aids, and other eye care goods.

What’s the Difference Between an Optometrist and Ophthalmologist?

The main difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist is that an optometrist does not provide as wide a scope of eye care as an ophthalmologist.

While an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who may diagnose and treat any eye-related disease, and some even specialize in certain areas, an optometrist is not a medical doctor. 

Optometrists do not diagnose non-eye-related medical conditions or perform any surgeries (except in certain states).5

Optometrists require less schooling than ophthalmologists, which is why they often work together with ophthalmologists to treat patients.5

What Should You Look for in an Eye Doctor?

The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that you should have a medical eye exam by the time you are 40 years old. 

From there, you should get them as often as your ophthalmologist recommends them.

While some vision problems can be corrected right away, some require regular check-ups and constant care.2

Finding an eye doctor to get an exam or treatment isn’t always easy since there are so many reasons you might need one. Plus, there are a lot of options to choose from. There are more than 30,000 doctors of optometry in the U.S. alone.6

Your choice depends on a few factors. When looking for an eye doctor, you should first make sure that the doctor is trained in what exactly you need.

If you need a doctor who can perform surgery for an eye disease, you will need to see an ophthalmologist. If you need a simple eye exam, you could see an optometrist. And if you just need to get a new pair of glasses with a prescription you already have, you should visit an optician.

An optometrist can provide the same comprehensive medical exam as an ophthalmologist. If additional testing is required, the optometrist may refer to an ophthalmologist.

Optometrists handle the bulk of routine and primary care exams. Most ophthalmologists are focused on managing specific eye conditions. In fact, many of them choose not to do vision exams to prescribe glasses and defer to optometrists for that.

Make sure that you see an eye doctor who makes you feel heard and does not invalidate your concerns. Your eye health is critical, so it’s important that you find a doctor with whom you’re comfortable.

You should also look to find an eye doctor who is covered under your vision insurance if you have it. A doctor who is in your network can be substantially less expensive than a doctor who is not in your network.

Resources
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Common Eye Disorders and Diseases.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 June 2020.

Eye Diseases | Glaucoma.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 23 Sept. 2021.

Opticians: Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 8 Sept. 2021.

Vision Screening: Medlineplus Medical Test.” MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 15 Sept. 2021.

What Is an Ophthalmologist?American Academy of Ophthalmology, 7 Apr. 2021.

What's a Doctor of Optometry?AOA.org.

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