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Difference between optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians

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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.

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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.

An optometrist must complete a degree in optometry and then successfully complete a pre-registration period of one years' training under the supervision of an experienced optometrist. This includes work-based assessment and a final assessment on the core competencies for optometry.

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 medical doctor (MD) who specialises in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists are trained to perform eye tests, diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medications and perform eye surgery. They also write prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses.

Ophthalmologists undergo extensive training and the typical training route for would-be ophthalmologists is five years at medical school leading to a degree in medicine, then two years as a newly-qualified doctor followed by seven years of ophthalmic specialist training.

What is a dispensing optician?

A dispensing optician (DO) is not an optometrist, but DOs are an important part of your eye care team. They interpret the prescriptions written by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist to fit and sell suitable glasses and other eyewear.

In the UK dispensing opticians must complete and pass a three-year course of studying ophthalmic dispensing at an approved training institution.

Which eye care professional should I see: an optometrist or an ophthalmologist?

If your eyes are healthy and don't require specialised medical or surgical treatment you should see an optometrist.

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.

Ophthalmologists are medical eye doctors who are licensed to perform eye surgery.

In some cases, care for a specific eye problem may be provided by an optometrist and an ophthalmologist working as a team. This arrangement is called co-management.

In co-management, your primary care eye professional (usually an optometrist) refers you to a specialist (usually an ophthalmologist) for a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan. The ophthalmologist may choose to manage the problem medically, perform eye surgery, or both. After the condition is controlled or surgically treated, the specialist then sends you back to your primary care eye professional, who continues to monitor and treat your condition or perform post-operative care based on the specialist's recommendations.

Co-management is a particularly good solution if you are very pleased with the quality of eye care you are receiving from your primary care eye professional, but you want to have any specific medical eye conditions treated by an experienced specialist.

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