When it's time to get your eyes checked, make sure you are seeing the right eye care professional for your needs. Each member of the eye care team plays an important role in providing eye care, but many people confuse the different providers and their roles in maintaining your eye health. The levels of training and expertise—and what they are allowed to do for you—are the major difference between the types of eye care provider.
Ophthalmologists versus optometrists and other eye care providers
An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists must complete many more years of training than optometrists and opticians. As a result, ophthalmologists can diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions.
Here's how the role of ophthalmologists compares with other members of the eye care team:
Ophthalmologists are eye doctors with advanced medical and surgical training
An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists differ from optometrists and opticians in their levels of training and in what they can diagnose and treat.
Ophthalmologists complete 12 to 14 years of training and education including medical school and are licensed to practice medicine and surgery. This advanced training allows ophthalmologists to diagnose and treat a wider range of conditions than optometrists and opticians. Typical training includes a four-year college degree followed by at least eight years of additional medical and surgical training.
An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats all eye diseases, performs eye surgery and prescribes and fits eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems. Many ophthalmologists are also involved in scientific research on the causes and cures for eye diseases and vision disorders. Because they are medical doctors, ophthalmologists can sometimes recognize other health problems that aren't directly related to the eye, and refer those patients to the right medical doctors for treatment.
Some ophthalmologists have specialized expertise in specific eye conditions
While ophthalmologists are trained to care for all eye problems and conditions, some ophthalmologists specialize further in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care. This person is called a subspecialist. He or she usually completes one or two years of additional, more in-depth training (called a Fellowship) in one of the main subspecialty areas such as Glaucoma, Retina, Cornea, Pediatrics, Neurology, Oculo-Plastic Surgery or others. This added training and knowledge prepares an ophthalmologist to take care of more complex or specific conditions in certain areas of the eye or in certain groups of patients.
Optometrists provide vision tests, prescribe lenses and treat certain eye conditions
Optometrists are healthcare professionals who provide primary vision care ranging from vision testing and correction to the diagnosis, treatment, and management of vision changes. An optometrist is not a medical doctor. An optometrist receives a doctor of optometry (OD) degree after completing 2 to 4 years of college-level education, followed by four years of optometry school. They are licensed to practice optometry, which primarily involves performing eye exams and vision tests, prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses, detecting certain eye abnormalities, and prescribing medications for certain eye diseases in some states. Many ophthalmologists and optometrists work together in the same offices, as a team. In the United States, what optometrists are licensed to do for patients can vary from state to state.
Opticians fit eyeglasses and contact lenses
Opticians are technicians trained to design, verify and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses and other devices to correct eyesight. They use prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists or optometrists, but do not test vision or write prescriptions for visual correction. Opticians are not permitted to diagnose or treat eye diseases.
Ophthalmic medical assistants help physicians examine and treat patients
These technicians work in the ophthalmologist's office and are trained to perform a variety of tests and help the physician with examining and treating patients.
Ophthalmic technicians/technologists assist with medical tests and minor surgeries
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 nurses deliver medications and assist with surgeries
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.
Ophthalmic photographers use cameras to document a patient's eyes
These individuals use specialized cameras and photographic methods to document patients' eye conditions in photographs.
See the right eye care provider at the right time
Without healthy vision it can be hard to work, play, drive or even recognize a face. Many factors can affect eyesight, including other health problems like high blood pressure or diabetes. Having a family member with eye disease can make you more prone to having that condition. Sight-stealing eye disease can appear at any time. Often vision changes are unnoticeable at first and difficult to detect.
If you've never had a complete, dilated eye exam, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends that everyone have a complete medical eye exam by age 40, and then as often as recommended by your ophthalmologist. Even if you're healthy, it's important to have a baseline eye exam, to compare against in the future and help spot changes or problems.
There are many possible symptoms of eye disease. If you have any concerns about your eyes or vision, visit an ophthalmologist. A complete, medical eye exam by an ophthalmologist could be the first step toward saving your sight.