Types of Eye Doctors

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What is the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist?

Who do you see if you need your vision checked? There are a few different types of eye doctors available. Knowing which one to see based on your vision health is an important part of getting the care you need.

Optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians are all eye care professionals, but each offers different services. Each has a different level of training and addresses particular aspects of vision health.

What should you know about the difference between these eye health professionals?

What is an Optometrist?

An optometrist offers primary vision care. This is a doctor trained in the overall health of the eyes. They offer routine eye exams and a variety of different services.

Optometrists use a wide range of tests to check a patient’s vision. They also diagnose the presence of any diseases and offer treatment and maintenance of abnormalities.

Phoropter Refractor

If an eye disease has progressed beyond their ability to treat it, the optometrist refers the patient to an ophthalmologist. The two often work together to help patients with pre- and post-operative care, surgery, and recovery.

Education Level

Most Doctors of Optometry complete four years of undergraduate education and obtain a bachelor’s degree in pre-medical or biological sciences. Doctors of Optometry need at least three years of post-secondary education focused on biology, chemistry, math, physics, and English. Following their bachelor’s degree, optometrists must complete four years at a college of optometry to obtain their Doctor of Optometry degree.

What Conditions Do Optometrists Treat?

Optometrists are qualified to perform all basic vision tests and eye examinations. Many states allow optometrists to treat eye diseases like dry eye, glaucoma, and retinal diseases. Some perform minor surgical procedures. They also provide pre- and post-operative care.

Treatments Offered by Optometrists

Most people visit an optometrist for their annual comprehensive eye exam. Optometrists:

  • Provide and update contact lens and eyeglass prescriptions
  • Prescribe medication and treatment for some eye conditions
  • Diagnose eye conditions
  • Perform minor surgical procedures, including laser eye surgery and removal of foreign bodies (in some states)
  • Provide pre- and post-surgical care 

Equipment Optometrists Use

Like all doctors, optometrists use a special collection of tools to care for patients. This includes refractive aids that help them diagnose vision flaws and provide prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses. Optometrists use a phoropter and eye chart to diagnose a person’s vision issues and write a corrective prescription.

When to See an Optometrist

You should see an optometrist at least once a year for an annual checkup and any time you experience eye health problems. Optometrists are the first line of defense when dealing with eye conditions.

They are primary health care professionals, so they provide routine care and begin the process of treating specific problems just like your family doctor or primary general practitioner. Optometrists solve most vision health problems, but if they cannot, they’ll refer patients to an ophthalmologist.

What is the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist? An optometrist treats basic eye health issues, whereas ophthalmologists treat more advanced issues.

What is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). 

Ophthalmologists have the most education of any eye health care provider. They diagnose eye diseases and treat them surgically when needed.

Optometrists refer most patients in need of eye surgery to an ophthalmologist. A referral is also likely for patients with more complicated or progressive eye diseases. 

Education Level

Ophthalmologists complete at least three years of undergraduate education with a focus on pre-med and/or science. They also receive an additional four years of medical training to become an MD or DO.

Medical school graduation is followed by a three-year residency spent studying eye diseases and surgical methods. Some ophthalmologists choose additional specialized training and develop a sub-specialty through a fellowship focused on a specific eye health condition. 

What Conditions Do Ophthalmologists Treat?

Ophthalmologists treat advanced eye conditions. The most common issues they deal with include:

  • Cataracts
  • Glaucoma
  • Eye infections
  • Optic nerve problems
  • Strabismus
  • Ptosis
  • Pterygium 
  • Persistent styes

Treatments Offered by Ophthalmologists

Some ophthalmologists provide basic eye care, while others also offer specialized treatment. This includes:

  • Medical and surgical treatments
  • Rehabilitation after surgery
  • Medication for severe eye infections
  • All types of eye surgery including LASIK and cataract surgery

Equipment Ophthalmologists Use

Ophthalmologists are trained in using a variety of equipment, including:

Ophthalmoscope

An ophthalmoscope is a hand-held device used to examine the eye’s interior. It features a concave mirror that, when used with a light source, allows a doctor to look at the eye in a variety of magnifications and examine the cornea, lens, vitreous, and retina.

Retinoscope

A retinoscope is most often used with young patients or patients with communication challenges. It shines a beam of light directly into the retina and lets the doctor observe the movement of the red reflex (reflection off the retina) and determine the lens power that provides a clearly defined image for the retina.

Phoropter

Doctors use a phoropter in conjunction with an eye chart to assess a patient’s vision. It has three rotating disks containing a variety of lenses and colored filters. Patients look at the chart through the variety of lenses and describe their ability to view the eye chart.

Eye Chart

Doctors use an eye chart in conjunction with a phoropter to assess a patient’s vision. He or she looks through the phoropter at the chart featuring several lines of letters. 

The most common vision chart is the Snellen eye chart. It has multiple rows of random capitalized letters with one large top letter and progressively smaller letters.

The Tumbling E chart features only the letter E facing in different directions for patients who do not know the alphabet.

Additionally, ophthalmologists use surgical equipment, including the microkeratome device (used in LASIK procedures).

When to See an Ophthalmologist

There are several instances in which you would want to see an ophthalmologist. Most people begin with a visit to the optometrist who then refers them to an ophthalmologist due to advanced eye health needs.

Some of these include:

  • Cataracts. A progressive opacification of the lenses of the eyes, which can cause vision impairment and require surgical removal.
  • Glaucoma. An eye disease characterized by damage to the optic nerve.
  • Age-related macular degeneration. A condition that can be diagnosed as dry or wet and affect the macula, which is responsible for detailed, central vision.
  • Diabetic retinopathy. A degenerative complication of diabetes that can lead to blindness.
  • Strabismus. A condition that causes an eye turn and requires corrective lenses or surgery to treat.
  • Ptosis. This eye condition refers to weakened muscles that cause the eyelids to droop and block vision.
  • Pterygium. A condition that leads to fleshy growth on the front of the eye (over the conjunctiva) and may cause obstructed vision.
  • Persistent styes. Recurrent stye development that is uncomfortable and unsightly and requires professional excision.

Ophthalmologist vs. Optometrist vs. Optician

Ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians all deal with eye health issues. However, beyond that, the care they provide is quite different. Opticians aren’t doctors, they do not practice medicine, perform tests, diagnose diseases, or offer treatment aside from dispensing and fitting glasses and contact lenses.

Ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians work together to provide comprehensive eye care to people of all visual abilities.

What Does an Optician Do?

Opticians work with eye doctors to ensure patients get the best possible eyewear based on their prescription. Many vision clinics have opticians on staff. Opticians provide routine care, adjustment, and refills of eyeglasses and contact lenses. They are not doctors, but they can answer general eye care questions.

Opticians or dispensing opticians play an important role in advising and dispensing glasses and contacts. 

Opticians:

  • Receive and refill eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions
  • Measure, fit, and adjust glasses frames
  • Help people choose frames, contacts, and other eyewear accessories
  • Perform general operational duties at the vision care clinic or office

When to See an Optician

An optician can help you if:

  • You are having difficulty seeing far away or up close based on your current glasses prescription
  • You’re suffering from frequent headaches
  • Your eyes are frequently dry or uncomfortable
  • You’re squinting more than usual
  • Medication has changed your vision

Tips: How to Choose The Right Eye Doctor

Choosing the right eye doctor can feel overwhelming. It helps to understand what each type of eye doctor does: 

  1. Optometrists provide basic care and offer examinations, diagnoses, and medical treatment for eye conditions. They are the first doctor to see when you are having issues with eye health or for your annual exam.
  2. Ophthalmologists specialize in surgical procedures for the eyes. They treat more advanced eye health issues.
  3. Opticians work in vision care centers and optometry offices and help patients get the vision correction devices they need.

Choosing which of these eye health experts to visit should be based on your vision health and the services you need.

Resources
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“Understanding Your Prescription Rights for Glasses and Contact Lenses.” Consumer Information, 18 June 2020, https://www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/understanding-your-prescription-rights-glasses-and-contact-lenses

“Finding an Eye Doctor | National Eye Institute.” www.nei.nih.gov, https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/healthy-vision/finding-eye-doctor

“Optometry.” Hpa, 20 Jan. 2017, https://www.hpa.ucdavis.edu/optometry.

“School of Optometry | UAB.” www.uab.edu, https://www.uab.edu/optometry/home/.

“What Is an Ophthalmologist?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 5 Mar. 2019, https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/what-is-ophthalmologist.

“Vision Health Initiative (VHI) | CDC.” Www.cdc.gov, 25 Jan. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/visionhealth/index.htm.

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