What do you call an eye doctor? 

It might sound like the beginning to a corny joke, but for many people, it’s an earnest question. There are several kinds of eye health professionals out there, and they’re each qualified to do different things. 

Read on to learn what each type of eye doctor does and how they can help with your vision and ocular health.

What Are the Types of Eye Doctors?

When people use the term “eye doctor,” chances are they’re referring to one of three professions: an ophthalmologist, optometrist, or optician. 

Of these three, only the first two are considered physicians who see and treat patients. Opticians are more involved with filling prescriptions and handling corrective eyewear. (We’ll talk more about them at the end of the article.)

So, what’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist? It comes down to a mix of educational paths, degrees, and what they focus on as health practitioners. 

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What Is an Optometrist?

An optometrist is an eye care professional who examines, diagnoses, and treats disorders and diseases of the eye. Think of them as a “primary care” provider for your eyes.

According to the American Optometric Association, optometrists provide 85% of the primary eye health care in the country. 

What Does an Optometrist Do?

Optometrists provide a wide range of services, which can include:

  • Conducting comprehensive eye exams
  • Diagnosing and managing eye conditions and abnormalities
  • Prescribing medications to treat ocular conditions
  • Evaluating and monitoring secondary eye conditions associated with systemic diseases (e.g., diabetes, hypertension, thyroid disease)
  • Treating ocular emergencies (e.g., red eye, trauma, flashes, increased floaters)
  • Providing pre- or post-operative care
  • Providing vision therapy for binocular vision disorders
  • Prescribing corrective lenses (single-vision glasses, readers, progressives, and contact lenses)
  • Performing contact lens exams and fittings
  • Performing in-office procedures (e.g., epilating lashes, placing punctal plugs, draining styes)

An optometrist’s list of services can vary due to state law. Each state has what’s called a “scope of practice” for optometrists, which may or may not permit them to prescribe certain types of  medications and perform certain procedures. 

Illustration of an optometrist with icons for his different duties

How Do You Become an Optometrist?

To become an optometrist, you must first complete a series of prerequisite courses. Then you attend four years of an Optometry Graduate School to earn a Doctorate of Optometry (OD). 

Most pre-optometry students obtain a bachelor’s degree before applying to optometry school. An entrance exam called the Optometry Admission Test, or OAT, is also required as part of the application process.  

Optometry school entails both coursework and clinical rotations. During their training, student-doctors become practiced at performing eye exams as well as diagnosing and treating ocular conditions. 

After earning their doctorate, optometrists may choose to start practicing immediately or continue their education with a residency or fellowship. These programs focus on specialties such as ocular disease, specialty contact lens fittings, and pediatrics.

When Should You See an Optometrist? 

You should see an optometrist for all of your routine eye care needs, including annual eye examinations and vision correction. They can diagnose, treat, and manage almost any eye-related condition. If a condition requires further testing or surgical intervention, then you may be referred to a specialist. 

If you do end up needing a specialist referral, an optometrist is often the person who will give it to you—they’re the first stop on the road to ocular health. 

What Is an Ophthalmologist? 

An ophthalmologist is an eye doctor with advanced training (either a doctor of medicine (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) degree) who can diagnose and treat a wide range of eye conditions. They can have many specialties, including general ophthalmology, pediatrics, oculoplastics, and specific parts of the eye, and can provide expertise when further evaluation, treatment, or surgical intervention is required.

What Does an Ophthalmologist Do?

Ophthalmologists can evaluate and treat eye problems just as an optometrist can, but their specialized training allows them to address more advanced ocular conditions and perform surgery. Their practice can include: 

  • Performing routine examinations 
  • Prescribing corrective lenses
  • Diagnosing, treating, and managing ocular conditions with both medications and surgery
  • Performing surgeries such as LASIK, cataract surgery, glaucoma surgery, and retinal detachment repair
  • Performing intraocular injections for diabetes, macular degeneration, or other vascular diseases
  • Pre- and post-surgical management
  • Clinical research in ophthalmology
  • Co-management with other medical physicians for ocular conditions related to systemic disease
Illustration of an ophthalmologist with icons for her different duties

How Do You Become an Ophthalmologist?

To become an ophthalmologist, you must complete pre-medical school college prerequisites, then attend four years of medical school with a rotation in ophthalmology.

Upon graduating medical school, ophthalmologists partake in a residency program for three to four years in a given area of ophthalmology. These areas are called sub-specialties, and they may require an additional one to two years of fellowship training after the residency. Examples of sub-specialties include general ophthalmology, neuro-ophthalmology, pediatrics, oculoplastics, retina, cornea, uveitis, and glaucoma.

All ophthalmologists must be licensed by the state they work in to practice medicine. 

When Should You See an Ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologists are trained for diagnosing and treating all eye conditions, but many choose to focus on a specific area of care. You would typically schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist when you have an eye condition or problem that needs attention from a specialist. 

Commonly, your optometrist will refer you to an ophthalmologist when a diagnosis needs further testing. You might also be referred if you have an ocular condition that is more advanced, and requires specialized treatment or surgery.

The Difference Between Optometrists and Ophthalmologists 

The diagram below illustrates the key differences between optometrists and ophthalmologists. Use it as a handy reference guide when you’re wondering which eye doctor is which.

Infographic detailing the differences between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist

Is an Optometrist as Good as an Ophthalmologist?

Neither profession is “better” than the other—optometrists and ophthalmologists are different jobs with different responsibilities. It would be best to see an optometrist for certain eye issues, and an ophthalmologist for others. 

Are Optometrists Doctors?

Optometrists are professionals with a Doctorate of Optometry (OD) degree, and as such are considered to be practicing eye doctors. They are technically not medical doctors, as they do not have a doctor of medicine degree (MD).

However, it’s inappropriate to imply that optometrists are not “real” doctors—their training qualifies them to provide dependable primary care for most people’s eyes. 

How Much Do Optometrists Make?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, optometrists had an average salary of about $118,000 in 2020.

How Much Do Ophthalmologists Make? 

According to a MedScape report referenced in Physician’s Weekly, ophthalmologists had an average salary of $379,000 in 2020. 

Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist: What’s the Takeaway? 

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can diagnose, treat, and manage ocular conditions. Optometrists tend to specialize in routine, primary eye care, whereas ophthalmologists tend to sub-specialize in certain disciplines and can perform surgical intervention if required.

What Is an Optician?

An optician is a technician who fills eyewear prescriptions and fits patients with the appropriate corrective lenses for their vision issues. 

Opticians are not eye doctors—they do not perform eye examinations, write prescriptions, or treat ocular conditions.

What Does an Optician Do?

An optician occupies more of a retail space than optometrists or ophthalmologists. Think of them as expert matchmakers between you and your ideal prescription glasses or contact lenses. Their services include:

  • Filling prescriptions from the eye doctor 
  • Fitting corrective lenses to patients by taking measurements such as pupillary distance
  • Educating patients about lens options and coatings, as well as eyewear accessories 
  • Adjusting and repairing glasses frames
  • Managing and ordering eyewear inventory
  • Keeping records of patient information and purchases
  • Helping patients to navigate vision insurance and submitting insurance information 
  • Other administrative and customer service tasks 

How Does Someone Become an Optician?

To become a certified optician, you typically complete one to two years of training. You might enroll at a school to get an associate’s degree, sign up for a certification program, or enter into an apprenticeship with an eye doctor. 

However, the qualifications needed to work as optician vary from state to state. Some states require that you be licensed (which might mean passing an exam), whereas others don’t. 

When Should You See an Optician? 

You’re most likely to see an optician before and after an appointment with your optometrist—opticians typically work alongside them, often in the same office or building. 

Opticians might handle your appointment scheduling, payment, and insurance information in addition to providing guidance on corrective lens options. After your exam, they’ll take your prescription and the optometrist’s recommendations into account when recommending different eyewear styles. 

You might also see an optician when you’re having a problem with your glasses or contacts and need help repairing or replacing them. 

No Matter What They’re Called, Eye Doctors Want the Best For Your Eyes 

The important question isn’t “What do you call an eye doctor?”, but “Which eye care professional should you call, and when?” Now that you know the difference between optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians, hopefully you know who to contact when you’re experiencing any eye or eyewear troubles. These professionals might have different roles and educational backgrounds, but they all have your eyes’ best interests in mind.

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