The eye care team encompasses several different medical specialists who work together to provide eye care for patients. Led by ophthalmologists, the medical doctors who specialize in eye care and surgery, the eye care team includes optometrists, nurses, opticians, medical assistants, techs and photographers. Each person serves a different role on the team.
Ophthalmology and Optometry
The distinction between ophthalmology and optometry is a frequent source of confusion. In addition to the fact that both are concerned with eye care, several other factors contribute to this misunderstanding. One source of confusion stems from the fact that optometrists are often referred to as eye doctors although, unlike ophthalmologists, they do not have medical degrees.
In addition, as a result of recent legislation state-by-state, organized optometry has been able to expand the powers of various state optometry boards, which then license optometrists to prescribe and administer diagnostic and therapeutic pharmaceutical agents. As a result, organized optometry has politically self-defined an optometrist to be a "primary eye care provider."
An optometrist receives a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree and is licensed to practice optometry, not medicine. The practice of optometry traditionally involves examining the eye for the purpose of prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses, and screening vision to detect certain eye abnormalities. In comparison, the scope of an ophthalmologist's practice is much broader. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) who specializes in all aspects of eye care including diagnosis, management, and surgery of ocular diseases and disorders. This is the reason many ophthalmologists refer to themselves as Eye M.D.s. Eye M.D.s also routinely carry out many of the same tasks as optometrists and, although there are almost twice as many practicing optometrists as Eye M.D.s, about one fourth of the nation's refractions and eye examinations are performed by Eye M.D.s.
The difference between the training of an optometrist and that of an Eye M.D. underscores the difference in the range of practice. An optometrist may have only seven years of post-high school training, consisting of three to four years of college and four years in an optometric college. An Eye M.D. receives a minimum of 12 years of education, which typically includes four years of college, four years of medical school, one or more years of general clinical training and three or more years in a hospital-based eye residency program, often followed by one or more years of subspecialty fellowship.
Beyond refractive errors, optometrists have limited exposure in training to patients with eye disorders or health problems. Didactic training in medical, pharmaceutical and ocular subjects averages approximately one year. In contrast, Eye M.D.s have a full medical education, followed by extensive clinical and surgical training in ophthalmology, with thousands of hours devoted to the care and treatment of sick patients.
These technicians are trained to design, verify and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses, and other devices to correct eyesight. They use prescriptions supplied by Eye M.D.s or optometrists, but do not test vision or write prescriptions for visual corrections. Opticians are not permitted to diagnose or treat eye diseases.
Ophthalmic Medical Assistant
These technicians work in the Eye M.D.'s office and are trained to perform a variety of tests and help the physician with examining and treating patients.
These are highly trained or experienced medical assistants who assist the physician with more complicated or technical medical tests and minor office surgery.
Ophthalmic Registered Nurse
These clinicians have undergone special nursing training and may have additional training in ophthalmic nursing. They may assist the physician in more technical tasks, such as injecting medications or assisting with hospital or office surgery. Some ophthalmic registered nurses also serve as clinic or hospital administrators.
These individuals use specialized cameras and photographic methods to document patient's eye conditions in photographs.