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ophthalmologist vs optometrist what is the difference

Your vision and eye health depend on routine checkups from eye care providers. Knowing which type of eye care provider to select – ophthalmologist versus optometrist – depends on your particular diagnosis or treatment needs. While most people will only ever see an optometrist for a standard eye exam or lens/prescription changes for the majority of their lifetime, ophthalmologists are medical doctors and have further education and specialty training to support more serious eye conditions and surgical treatment options. 

Knowing the difference in education, training, and job description will support you in choosing the right care provider for your eyes and future vision health.  

Ophthalmologist vs Optometrist: What Do They Have in Common? 

There are a few things that both ophthalmologists and optometrists have in common. Both medical professions involve: 

  • The root word op/sis – meaning view or eye (one of the reasons the titles sound so similar) 
  • Supporting eye health and healthy lifestyle choices for their patients 
  • Diagnosing and treating eye conditions 
  • Continuing their education and training for life to maintain current licensure 

There are also several differences in terms of what’s required to become an ophthalmologist vs optometrist, as well as a difference in their scope of work. 

What is an Ophthalmologist? 

The ophthalmologist is the heavy-hitter in the eye care provider lineup. They are bonafide medical doctors (MDs), which means that in addition to their undergraduate studies, they went on to complete full graduate studies at an accredited medical school. Once medical school studies are complete, ophthalmologists go on to specialize in the eye, via a specialty residency. 

During the residency years, ophthalmologists learn to diagnose and treat serious diseases and conditions affecting eye health and vision. In addition to the ability to administer medicinal or therapy-based treatments, ophthalmologists are trained surgeons, so they can perform eye surgeries when necessary. Altogether, they complete four years of undergraduate studies, followed by four years of medical school and specialty residency training – for a total of 12 years. 

Most ophthalmologists work in private practices or are hired via larger healthcare providers and facilities. They see visits on an appointment-only basis and typically perform surgeries, such as LASIK, in the comfort of their own offices. These practitioners typically work in collaboration with local optometrists and physicians, who refer patients with special vision or eye needs to the ophthalmologist for a second opinion or diagnosis, and to facilitate prescribed treatment, surgery, follow-up care, etc.  

Some ophthalmologists work in emergency departments or urgent care facilities to treat trauma-based eye issues or acute eye conditions that happen outside normal practitioners’ business hours. Those ophthalmologists do what they can at the moment and then refer the patient back to his/her regular physician or an office-based ophthalmologist for further follow-up and care. 

Ophthalmologists typically have busy schedules and are in high demand, which is why most work exclusively via referrals from optometrists or physicians. Unless you’re experiencing a true eye emergency, odds are you may have a longer wait before getting an appointment. This is why it can be helpful to choose an eye center that employs both ophthalmologists and optometrists, which ensure you are seen quickly and efficiently regardless of your needs.  

Because ophthalmologists handle more serious eye conditions, diseases, and surgery, they do not usually prescribe or manage prescriptions for contacts. Those are all handled by optometrists. 

What is an Optometrist? 

Optometrists are doctors of optometry (OD) rather than MDs. Optometrists complete four years of undergraduate college and then continue to complete an additional four to five years of graduate-level work from designated schools of optometry. These years of education and training are dedicated to teaching optometrists how to: 

  • Perform routine eye exams 
  • Use specialized diagnostic tools to detect refractive errors (vision issues) in patients and then prescribe eyeglasses or contacts 
  • Detecting eye conditions 
  • Treating and managing eye conditions 
  • Offer therapies that most ophthalmologists do not such as specialty contact lens fitting, low vision therapy, vision therapy, eye exercises, and more 

Where ophthalmologists are specialists, optometrists are more like the primary care providers for our eyes. When you need a comprehensive eye exam or you are concerned about a particular eye issue, you schedule an appointment with an optometrist. If the optometrist feels the issue requires treatments or surgery that are beyond his/her scope of work, s/he’ll refer you to an ophthalmologist for further diagnosis and treatment if necessary.

We’ve Got You Covered From All Sides

Here at Atlantic Eye Institute, we employ the area’s best board-certified optometrists and ophthalmologists to optimize patient care and expedite treatments and surgical procedures. Whether you are due for a routine eye exam or have been referred to an ophthalmologist for further diagnosis and treatment, the Atlantic Eye Institute team is here to support your eye health. Contact us to learn more about our services, to schedule your next appointment, or have us explain a little more about the differences between an ophthalmologist vs optometrist. 

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