Difference between optometrist, ophthalmologist and optician
Choosing an eye care provider is an important health care decision. After all, you will be trusting them to safeguard your precious sense of sight and help you maintain a lifetime of good vision.
The first step in your decision is to understand that there are different types of eye care professional: optometrists, ophthalmologists and there is a third "O" among eye care providers: the optician.
What is an optometrist?
An optometrist is an eye care professional who has earned a degree in Optometry. Optometrists examine eyes for both vision and health problems, and correct refractive errors by prescribing glasses and contact lenses. Some optometrists also provide low vision care and vision therapy.
Some optometrists in the UK are also licensed to prescribe medications to treat certain eye problems and diseases if they have undergone further training and qualifications in these particular fields.
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Optometrists may also participate in your pre- and post-operative care if you have eye surgery performed by an ophthalmologist. Optometrists in the UK are not trained or licensed to perform eye surgery.
Optometrists in the UK study at university for at least three years and must participate in a period of assessed clinical training in practice, before being deemed to have the knowledge and skills needed to be registered. Once this is complete, all optometrists practising in the UK must be registered with the General Optical Council, the profession’s regulatory body and will have the letters FCOptom or MCOptom after their name.
Like ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians are required to fulfill continuing education requirements on an ongoing basis to maintain their official registration and stay current with the latest standards of eye care.
What is an ophthalmologist?
An ophthalmologist is a medically trained doctor who commonly acts as both physician and surgeon. They examine, diagnose and treat diseases and injuries in and around the eye and undergo extensive training.
Ophthalmologists generally train for 5 years at medical school for a degree in medicine before working as 2 years as a newly qualified doctor doing basic medical training. Once this is complete, they undergo 7 years of ophthalmic specialist training and sit examinations set by the Royal College of Ophthalmologists.
What is an optician?
Known as Dispensing Opticians in the UK, these eyecare professionals use prescriptions written by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist to recommend and fit glasses and other eyewear.
All registered dispensing opticians have undergone a minimum of three years academic and practical training to qualify. Only dispensing opticians registered with the General Optical Council can practise in the UK, or use the protected title dispensing optician. Some undergo further training to specialise in the fitting and supply of contact lenses.
Like ophthalmologists and optometrists, dispensing opticians are required to fulfill continuing education requirements on an ongoing basis to maintain their registration and stay current with the latest standards of eye care.
Which should I see: an optometrist or an ophthalmologist?
You should visit an optometrist for a routine eye exam or if you have a concern regarding your eyes that is not an emergency. They will then be able to refer you to an ophthalmologist if for any reason you may need further investigation or treatment leading to a surgical procedure.
If you already have a medical eye condition — such as glaucoma, macular degeneration or cataracts — it is important to seek care from an eye care professional who is highly trained and skilled in monitoring and treating your condition. In many cases, this may mean that medical or surgical eye care by a specially trained ophthalmologist is required. In such cases, your optometrist may refer you to a colleague who is a specialist in treating your condition.
Most optometrists offer medical treatment for common eye problems (such as dry eyes and eye infections) and certain chronic eye diseases (such as glaucoma). But certain eye disorders require treatment by an ophthalmologist, particularly if surgery or other specialty care is needed.
Other factors when choosing an optician
When inquiring about the services an optician provides, ask what happens if a problem is detected that requires treatment beyond their scope of care. Which medical and surgical specialists do they refer to, and where are they located? Often referrals will need to go via your GP before reaching the ophthalmologist.
Finally, a major factor you should consider when choosing an optician is a recommendation by friends, family members or coworkers. Word-of-mouth referrals often are the best way to find a friendly, competent and caring optician and avoid unpleasant surprises when you go to have your eyes examined.
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Page updated July 2020