20/20 Insight: What's the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist?

by | Monday, September 15, 2014 | 0 comment(s)

When the print gets a little blurrier, whether from age or too much screen time, it’s time to see your eye doctor. But just what type of eye doctor do you need? 

There are three distinct types of eye care or vision care providers. There’s the optometrist, the ophthalmologist, and the optician. Each one has separate and unique abilities and provides separate and unique services. There is a bit of overlap in optometry and ophthalmology, but for the most part, they are distinctly different. Let’s look at just what those differences are. 


The optician is the least trained of all vision care professionals. Most opticians hold a certificate or diploma, most often from a community college or other business or training school. Opticians can’t perform any type of exam. In fact, everything they do really relies on optometrists and ophthalmologists.

An optician is the professional that measures your face and eyes to give you the best fit and use for your glasses. They also sell, adjust, and, often times, repair eyeglasses. In some states, they can become certified to sell and assist you with your contact lenses. Opticians are the professionals in the eyeglass place at the mall or supercenter store. It’s their job to fill the corrective lens prescriptions written by other vision care professionals after you’ve been examined.


An optometrist is responsible for your routine and basic vision and eye care services. Optometrists actually do not have a medical degree. Instead, after a four-year college degree, they go on to four years of training in optometry.

They can perform routine eye exams and test the accuracy of your vision. They can write you a prescription for corrective lenses or contacts. Optometrists can also offer vision therapy services for those with low or failing vision. They can diagnose common vision and eye ailments and conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and conjunctivitis (pink eye). They can prescribe treatments for some of these conditions, and provide referrals for the treatment of others. Typically, they will refer you to an ophthalmologist. 

Your optometrist will also be an active partner in pre- and post-operative care, should your eye condition require surgery. However, your optometrist can not perform that surgery.

Many optometrists set up solo practices or small practices with one or two other optometrists. They must become licensed by their individual state before they can see patients, typically through a standardized testing program. This accounts for the differences in the types of treatments and services they can offer.


Ophthalmologists can provide total vision care—everything from routine eye exams and glasses fittings to complex surgery on the eye itself. Ophthalmologists can also be involved in researching various treatments or conditions to develop new treatments. The ophthalmologist has a medical degree. After attending medical school and doing a one-year internship, the prospective ophthalmologist spends at least 3 years in a residency program specializing in ophthalmology. Most ophthalmologists choose to become board-certified, as the certification process allows them practicing privileges at specific hospitals and clinics. However, some choose to forgo the rigorous oral and written testing involved.

Many ophthalmologists go on to acquire additional training in a specialty field, such as pediatric eye care, glaucoma, retinal or corneal conditions, corneal or lens transplants, refractive surgery, and neurological ophthalmology (treating the nerves of the eye). All of this training makes your ophthalmologist better able to recognize and treat the conditions that can affect your eyesight.

They can also spot potential diagnoses when reading the findings of an optometrist’s examinations. Another benefit is that your ophthalmologist can often tell when another medication you may be taking is affecting your vision or if there is another underlying cause. The fact that ophthalmologists can perform eye surgery and vision-correcting procedures means that they often see patients with more severe conditions, or with rare or unusual conditions, giving them a wealth of insight into various eye problems.

Many ophthalmologists only take patients by referral, while some do set up open practices.

All in all, a good way to keep the three eye care professionals organized in your mind’s eye is this:

  • Optician – No medical degree; helps fit your glasses and fills new glasses prescriptions
  • Optometrist – No medical degree; performs your routine eye exams and prescribes new glasses
  • Ophthalmologist – Medical degree; can provide complete vision care, including surgery

Why See the Eye Doctor?

Vision care is not something to be taken lightly, nor is it something to neglect. You should receive regular eye exams and follow through with any therapies, treatments, or corrective lenses that your eye care provider prescribes.

A referral to an ophthalmologist by an optometrist does not always indicate that you should have something to be nervous about. It simply indicates that there is something going on that needs the attention of someone better trained and experienced. Whether an optometrist or an ophthalmologist, both kinds of eye doctors rely on the skills and services of an optician—in most cases, to provide you with the proper frames and lenses to correct the problem they’ve uncovered.

So when that print gets too small (or your arm gets too short), or that darn screen just won’t stop blurring together on you, get to an eye care professional. You’ll be seeing so much more clearly in the future for having done so.

Photo credits:

Vision Of Eyechart With Glasses” by Ken Teegardin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Another Day, Another Eye Exam” by Nomadic Lass is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

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