What is an optometrist?
An optometrist is an eye care professional who has earned a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. Optometrists are eye doctors who provide eye exams and medical eye care but do not perform eye surgery.
To become a licensed optometrist in the United States, you must attend a four-year curriculum of study and clinical experience at an accredited school or college of optometry.
Generally, admission to optometry school is competitive and requires:
A four-year degree from a college or university
An acceptable score on an optometry college admissions test
An application process that requires personal references and an interview
Some optometrists (ODs) also choose to complete a residency in a specific area of practice.
As a comparison, the eight-year education requirement to become an optometrist — a college degree, followed by four years of post-graduate professional school — is similar to that required to become a dentist.
Following their educational curriculum, optometrists must pass national and state board exams before they can obtain a license to practice optometry.
After graduating from optometry school and passing licensure exams, an optometrist typically:
Performs comprehensive eye exams
Diagnoses, treats and manages vision problems
Diagnoses, treats, and manages eye infections and other common eye health problems
Prescribes eyeglasses and contact lenses
Performs contact lens fittings and follow-up exams
State law determines the permitted scope of services an optometrist can provide.
Some optometrists may dedicate their practice to a specific type of patient or eye care. For example, a pediatric optometrist specializes in children’s vision and vision therapy. Others may specialize in sports vision or providing care for people with visual disabilities (low vision).
Limits of care
With a few exceptions, optometrists are not licensed to perform eye surgery in the United States. Referral to an ophthalmologist is typically required if eye surgery is needed.
When to see an optometrist
Generally, most optometrists recommend an annual eye exam — especially for children, contact lens wearers and adults over age 60.
If you notice a sudden or significant change in your vision, seek care from an eye doctor (optometrist or ophthalmologist) immediately.
Cost of exams
Generally, the cost of services provided by both optometrists (ODs) and ophthalmologists (MDs) is at least partially covered by vision insurance or medical insurance.
If you don’t have insurance, routine eye exams provided by an optometrist often cost less than eye exams provided by an ophthalmologist.
Whichever eye doctor you choose, ask about costs and possible insurance coverage before you schedule your exam.
ALSO: For a quick side-by-side comparison of eye doctors, see this Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist infographic.
Page published in December 2020
Page updated in February 2021