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Optometrist vs. ophthalmologist: What’s the difference?

When it comes to your eyes, there are two medical specialists who are qualified to help maintain and improve your sight: optometrists and ophthalmologists. Both play an important part role on your eye care team, and both are qualified to help with eyesight issues. But how do you know which specialist you need?

Optometry vs. ophthalmology

In the most basic terms, optometry addresses primary eye health, such as performing eye exams and vision tests, detecting vision problems, and prescribing corrective treatments such as glasses, contact lenses, and medications.

Ophthalmology addresses all medical and surgical issues with the eyes, in addition to the services provided by optometrists.

While the services provided by each specialist can vary from state to state, here is a side-by-side comparison of the common differences between the two:

Qualifications and Services Optometrist Ophthalmologist
Undergraduate degree
Medical school 4 years optometry school 4 years medical school
Post-medical school training 1-year residency (optional) 4-5 years internship and residency
Medical degree O.D.
Doctor of Optometry
M.D. or D.O.
Medical Doctor or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine
Performs exams
Diagnoses vision issues
Prescribes eyeglasses and contact lenses
Prescribes medications
Monitors eye health for people with certain medical conditions (diabetes, thyroid issues, multiple sclerosis, etc.)
Treats eye-related issues due to complex medical conditions (diabetes, thyroid issues, multiple sclerosis, etc.)  
Provides pre- and post-surgical care
Provides vision therapy  
Performs corrective procedures and surgeries  
May be involved in scientific research
May sub-specialize by patient type or medical condition with additional training and education

Think of your optometrist as the primary care doctor for your eyes. Your ophthalmologist is more of a specialist who can treat complex medical issues related to your eyes, and perform corrective procedures or surgeries. Both are required to participate in continuing education every year.

So how do you know which specialist you need?

Choose an optometrist for:

  • General eye health check-ups
  • Getting your vision checked if you’re having issues
  • Glasses/contact lens prescriptions or modifications
  • Symptoms/issues with your eyes that need to be addressed

Choose an ophthalmologist for:

  • Eye surgery/procedures
  • Any skin issues near your eyes (skin tags, moles)
  • Treatment for complex medical conditions that threaten eyesight
  • When referred by your optometrist

Optometrists and ophthalmologists often co-manage patients, meaning they work together to provide the best possible treatment.

What about opticians?

There is one more eye specialist you may have heard of — an optician. Opticians fill prescriptions written by optometrists and ophthalmologists. They also help patients choose and fit eyeglass frames. In some states, they can fit contact lenses after completing a certification program.

Your vision is critical to every part of your life, so it’s important to have access to the right specialists.

When it comes to choosing an optometrist vs. an ophthalmologist, it’s important to know that both play an important role in maintaining your eye health. Now that you know the difference between the two, you will have a better idea of who to call when your eyes need medical attention.

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