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  • What Is an Ophthalmologist vs Optometrist?

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    By Jennifer Churchill and Dan T. Gudgel
    Published Feb. 24, 2024

    Eye Doctors

    When it's time to get your eyes checked, make sure you are seeing the right eye specialist for your needs. Each member of the eye care team plays an important role in providing eye care, and they often work together in the same office. It's easy to confuse the types of professionals called "eye doctor" and their responsibilities in maintaining your eye health. Here's how they compare.

    Ophthalmologist vs Optometrist: What's the Difference?

    The levels of training and expertise—and what they are allowed to do for you—are the major difference between types of eye care professionals commonly called “eye doctor.”

    • An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor, and the only eye doctor with a medical degree (MD).
    • An optometrist is not a medical doctor but is often referred to as an eye doctor because they hold a doctor of optometry (OD) degree.

    Ophthalmologists must complete many more years of medical training than optometrists and opticians.

    As a result, an ophthalmologist is the most qualified among eye care professionals to diagnose and treat a wide range of eye diseases, beyond the routine eye and vision care provided by an optometrist.

    Types of Eye Care Professionals

    Here's how the role of ophthalmologist eye doctors compares with other members of the eye care team:

    Ophthalmologist: Eye Specialist With Advanced Medical and Surgical Training

    An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic physician who specializes in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologist eye doctors differ from optometrists and opticians in their levels of training and in what they can diagnose and treat.

    Ophthalmologist: Education and training

    Typical training for an ophthalmologist includes a four-year college degree followed by four years of medical school and at least four additional years of medical and surgical training. After completing this lengthy education—a total of 12 to 14 years—ophthalmologists are licensed to practice medicine and surgery. Ophthalmologists are the only eye care providers with the appropriate levels of medical education and clinical training to safely perform delicate eye surgery. This advanced medical training allows ophthalmologists to diagnose and treat a wider range of conditions than optometrists and opticians.

    Ophthalmologist: Role in eye care

    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 are eye specialists in specific diseases

    While an ophthalmologist is a medical eye doctor 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.

    Empowering lives: The transformative impact of ophthalmology

    Optometrist: Provider of Primary Eye Care, Vision Exams, and Lens Prescriptions

    Optometrists are healthcare professionals who provide primary vision care ranging from vision testing and correction to the diagnosis, treatment, and management of vision changes.

    Optometrist: Education and training

    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.

    Optometrist: Role in eye care

    Optometrists 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

    Ophthalmic medical assistants 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 Testing and Minor Surgeries

    Ophthalmic technicians/technologists 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

    Ophthalmic registered nurses are clinicians who 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

    Ophthalmic photographers use specialized cameras and photographic methods to document patients' eye conditions in photographs.

    See the Right Eye Doctor 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 by an eye doctor, whether ophthalmologist vs optometrist, 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 eye doctor. A complete, medical eye exam by an ophthalmologist could be the first step toward saving your sight. Use our search tool to find an eye exam near you.

    Find an Eye Doctor Near Me

    Find an ophthalmologist eye doctor near you using our search tool.