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Optometrist vs Ophthalmologist: What’s the Difference?

They’re both eye care professionals, but how do you know when you should see an optometrist vs opthamologist?

When looking at eye care professionals, optometrist vs ophthalmologist might seem like a difficult distinction to make. Both fields concern eye care and work together to look after your vision.

In this article, we outline the differences so that you know who to consult with about your eye health.

Optometrist vs Ophthalmologist: The Basic Differences

While they both play an important role in providing eye care, their levels of training and expertise are where the difference comes in.

Optometrists

Optometrists are usually the primary healthcare providers for your routine eye care. Typical vision care ranges from sight testing, diagnosis, vision correction, treatment, and management of vision changes.

An optometrist is not a medical doctor. However, they are eye care professionals who’ve completed a three or four-year full-time Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. Depending on the school and curriculum, the training usually includes basic and advanced eye examination techniques, client case history, and case studies, as well as additional courses in natural sciences (including optics) and pharmacology. This is in addition to full-time clinical training as a resident during the final years of the degree.

After they’ve completed their training, they receive a license to practice optometry which mainly involves:

  • performing eye exams and vision tests
  • prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses
  • detecting certain eye abnormalities
  • prescribing medication for specific eye diseases
  • providing low vision aids and vision therapy

Ophthalmologists

Ophthalmologists are responsible for your medical and surgical eye care.

These eye care professionals are medical doctors who completed a full medical program, and then spent at least 4 to 7 additional years (depending on the school and curriculum) specializing in ophthalmology. That means they’re licensed to practice medicine and surgery.

A qualified ophthalmologist can:

  • diagnose and treats all eye diseases
  • perform eye surgery
  • prescribe and fit eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems

What about an optician?

An optician is a customer service representative who works in vision care stores or optometrists’ offices. Their training is much more informal than both optometry and ophthalmology since they don’t necessarily need to have a formal degree. Opticians can become certified by completing a 1 to 2 year program. A program in ophthalmic dispensing or an in-house apprenticeship under an ophthalmologist or optometrist are two examples.

Opticians can usually provide routine care, adjustments, and refilling of prescriptions for eyeglasses or contact lenses. While they can answer general eye questions, they can’t examine, diagnose, or treat eye diseases.

Source: Volodymyr Hryshchenko

When Should You See an Ophthalmologist vs Optometrist

Well, that depends on what your medical issue is.

You can see your optometrist for:

  • yearly or routine eye exams (including eye health education)
  • diagnosis of eye conditions
  • prescriptions for eyeglasses, contact lenses, or other visual aids,
  • medical treatments or minor surgical procedures for eye conditions, like foreign body removal and laser eye surgery.
  • and post-surgical eye care

You can see your ophthalmologist for:

  • Basic optometry services (the same as an optometrist)
  • Medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases, including cataracts, glaucoma, strabismus surgery, and more
  • Rehabilitation services post eye surgery

Usually, if your optometrist diagnoses a medical or surgical abnormality, they’ll refer you to an ophthalmologist for treatment if required.

While ophthalmologists, optometrists, and opticians are all eye care professionals, it’s important to know which one you should see for each eye condition. When it comes to general eye health, it’s advisable to have your eyes examined by an eye care professional at least once in your twenties, twice in your thirties, every two years after 40, and every year after the age of 60.



Optometrist vs Ophthalmologist FAQs

Which eye doctor can diagnose glaucoma?

Both ophthalmologists and optometrists. Glaucoma is usually diagnosed through a group of tests, including a comprehensive eye exam – both of which can be performed by an optometrist and an ophthalmologist.

Which eye doctor can diagnose cataracts?

Both ophthalmologists and optometrists. Cataracts will need to be removed by an ophthalmologist using surgery. Optometrists can provide pre- and post-surgery care.

What symptoms can indicate blindness?

Symptoms of blindness include:

  • Cloudy vision
  • Inability to see shapes
  • Only seeing shadows
  • Poor night vision
  • Tunnel vision

If you have any of these symptoms, you should see an optometrist or ophthalmologist as a matter of urgency.

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Jenny Cohen Drefler

Jenny Cohen Derfler

Air Dr CEO & Co-Founder

Jenny is the CEO and one of the Co-Founders at Air Doctor. She spent more than 20 years at Intel, most recently as general manager of its manufacturing facility in Israel and before that in various engineering and manufacturing roles in Silicon Valley. Air Doctor is her second startup having previously founded electric vehicle company ElectRoad.