When you get your eyes checked, make sure you are seeing eye care professional that focuses on your needs. Ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians are the members of the eye care team who people see most often. Each one plays an important role in providing eye care, but many people confuse the different providers and their roles in maintaining your eye health. The levels of training and expertise—and what they are allowed to do for you—are the major difference between the types of eye care provider.
An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists complete 12 to 13 years of training and education, and are licensed to practice medicine and surgery. This advanced training allows ophthalmologists to diagnose and treat a wider range of conditions than optometrists and opticians. Typical training includes a four-year college degree followed by at least eight years of additional medical training.
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.
While ophthalmologists are 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.
Optometrists are healthcare professionals who provide primary vision care ranging from vision testing and correction to the diagnosis, treatment, and management of vision changes. 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. They 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. 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 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.