If you’ve ever had to search for an eye care doctor, you’re likely aware that there are several different types of eye specialists. Optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians are all professionals who specialize in eye care.
An optometrist is an eye doctor that can examine, diagnose, and treat your eyes. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who can perform medical and surgical interventions for eye conditions. An optician is a professional who can help fit eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other vision-correcting devices.
In this article, we will explore the education requirements, salary, scope of practice, and services that optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians provide. We will also discuss how to choose the best eye-care professional for your needs.
An optometrist is the primary health care provider for routine eye care.
An optometry program is a postgraduate program that takes roughly 4 years to complete, depending on the school and curriculum. The program curriculum includes:
- basic and advanced eye examination techniques
- client case history and case studies
- additional courses in the natural sciences (including optics) and pharmacology
Optometry program coursework also includes full-time clinical training as a resident during the final 1 to 2 years of the program.
In 2018, the median salary for optometrists was $111,790, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Services they provide and what they can treat
You can visit an optometrist for your yearly eye exam, to refill an eyeglass or contact prescription, or even to receive medication and treatment for certain eye conditions. Unlike an ophthalmologist, an optometrist is not a surgical specialist and cannot treat more serious eye conditions.
Optometrists provide the following services::
- annual or routine eye exams, including eye health education
- diagnosis of eye conditions
- prescriptions for eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other visual aids
- medical treatments or minor surgical procedures for eye conditions
- post-surgical eye care
Optometrists can prescribe controlled medications for eye conditions. Depending on the state legislation, some optometrists can also perform minor surgeries. These surgical procedures may include foreign body removal, laser eye surgery, and certain additional surgical interventions.
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in surgical eye procedures.
All ophthalmologists must complete a full medical program before they can begin a residency program in ophthalmology. An ophthalmology residency program takes an additional 4 to 7 years to complete, depending on the school and curriculum. The residency program expands on:
- diagnosis and management of internal and external eye diseases
- training for eye disease subspecialties
- ophthalmic surgical training for all types of eye conditions
Ophthalmology residency training also includes the hands-on care of patients, which involves performing surgical procedures under supervision. The residency program generally follows a one year internship.
In 2018, the average salary for ophthalmologists was $290,777 according to Salary.com.
Services they provide and what conditions they can treat
You can visit an ophthalmologist for the same care as an optometrist, such as a routine eye exam or prescription refill. However, an ophthalmologist can also perform eye surgery for various diseases and conditions, including cataracts, glaucoma, and strabismus surgery, plus more.
Ophthalmologists provide the following services:
- basic optometry services
- medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases
- rehabilitation services after eye surgery
Ophthalmologists receive 12 or more years of training in order to be able to perform in-depth surgical procedures for diseases of the eyes. Given that this is their specialty, almost all ophthalmologists will focus on this as their primary scope of care.
Do they perform surgery?
Depending on the scope of practice within the state, both optometrists and ophthalmologists can perform eye surgery. However, optometrists are limited in the surgeries they can perform while ophthalmologists can perform any and all surgical procedures they are trained for.
An optician is a customer service representative who works in a vision care store or optometrist’s office.
Optician training is much more informal than optometry or ophthalmology training. An optician does not necessarily need to hold a formal degree. An optician can become certified by completing a 1- to 2-year program, such as an associate’s program in ophthalmic dispensing.
An optician may also become certified through an in-house apprenticeship under an ophthalmologist or optometrist.
In 2018, the median salary for opticians was $37,010 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Services they provide
Opticians perform customer service duties at your optometrist’s office or local vision care center. You can visit an optician for routine care, adjustment, and refilling of prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses.
Opticians can also answer general eye care questions, but they cannot examine, diagnose or treat diseases of the eye.
Opticians provide the following services:
- receiving and filling eye prescriptions from optometrists and ophthalmologists
- measuring, fitting, and adjusting eyeglass frames
- helping customers choose eyeglass frames, contacts, and other vision accessories
- performing general office duties as part of an optometry office team
Unlike optometrists and ophthalmologists, opticians are not allowed to perform any eye exams or diagnose or treat any eye conditions.
How to choose the provider you need
How do you know which provider you should choose for your eye care? Choosing an optometrist, ophthalmologist, or optician will depend on the service you need.
- Visit an optometrist for routine eye care, such as a yearly eye exam or refilling an eyeglass, contact lens, or eye medication prescription.
- Visit an ophthalmologist for medical and surgical treatment of serious eye conditions, such as glaucoma, cataracts, and laser eye surgery.
- Visit an optician at your local optometrist’s office or vision care center if you need an eyeglass or contacts prescription filled or adjusted.
Optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians are all eye care professionals who differ in their education, specialty, and scope of practice.
Optometrists are basic eye care specialists who can examine, diagnose, and medically treat eye conditions. Ophthalmologists are a type of medical doctor who specialize in surgical procedures of the eye. Opticians are customer service specialists who work in vision care centers and optometry offices.
Choosing the right eye care professional for you will depend on what services you need. For a comprehensive list of optometrists near you, check out the American Optometric Association’s Find a Doctor tool.