When it comes to your eyes, there are 2 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? Learn about the differences between optometrists and ophthalmologists.

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Before we get started:

What’s an optometrist?

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. Optometrists complete 4 years of professional training after college to earn a doctor of optometry degree. They may also complete additional training or specialty fellowships after getting their degree.1

What’s an ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmology addresses all medical and surgical issues with the eyes in addition to the services provided by optometrists. Ophthalmologists complete training in medical school, followed by a 1-year internship and 3-year residency.2

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 can perform corrective procedures or surgeries. Both are required to participate in continuing education every year.

Differences between an optometrist vs. ophthalmologist

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 2:

Qualifications and Services Optometrist Ophthalmologist Undergraduate degree Yes Yes 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 Yes Yes Diagnoses vision issues Yes Yes Prescribes eyeglasses and contact lenses Yes Yes Monitors eye health for people with certain medical conditions (diabetes, thyroid issues, multiple sclerosis, etc.) Yes Yes Treats eye-related issues due to complex medical conditions (diabetes, thyroid issues, multiple sclerosis, etc.) Yes Provides pre- and post-surgical care Yes Yes Provides vision therapy Yes Performs corrective procedures and surgeries Yes May be involved in scientific research Yes Yes May sub-specialize by patient type or medical condition with additional training and education Yes Yes

How to choose the right eye doctor?

Choose an optometrist for:

  • General eye health checkups
  • 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 2, you will have a better idea of who to call when your eyes need medical attention.

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  1. “Eye Doctors: Optometrists and Ophthalmologists,” WebMD, last accessed April 4, 2023, https://www.webmd.com/eye-health/eye-doctors-optometrists-ophthalmologists.
  2. “Eye Doctors: Optometrists and Ophthalmologists.”