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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?
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Most people visit an optometrist for their annual comprehensive eye exam. Optometrists:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ophthalmologists treat advanced eye conditions. The most common issues they deal with include:
Some ophthalmologists provide basic eye care, while others also offer specialized treatment. This includes:
Ophthalmologists are trained in using a variety of equipment, including:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
An optician can help you if:
Choosing the right eye doctor can feel overwhelming. It helps to understand what each type of eye doctor does:
Choosing which of these eye health experts to visit should be based on your vision health and the services you need.
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“What Is an Ophthalmologist?” American Academy of Ophthalmology, 5 Mar. 2019, https://www.aao.org/eye-health/tips-prevention/what-is-ophthalmologist.
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