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How to choose an eye doctor

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Choosing an eye doctor is an important health care decision. Your eye doctor will help you see as clearly as possible and protect your vision — the sense people say they most fear losing — for a lifetime of clear eyesight.

Optometrist vs. ophthalmologist 

The first step in your decision is to understand there are two types of eye doctors — optometrists and ophthalmologists — and to know the differences between the two.

Optometrist

An optometrist is an eye doctor who has earned the Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree and specializes in eye and vision care. To become an optometrist in the United States, a candidate typically must earn a four-year college degree in the sciences and then attend an accredited school or college of optometry and obtain a four-year OD doctorate degree.

Most optometrists provide the following services:

  • Perform routine eye exams

  • Prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses

  • Perform contact lens fittings

  • Diagnose eye health problems

  • Medically manage many eye diseases, infections and injuries

In addition, some optometrists:

With few exceptions, optometrist eye doctors are not trained or licensed to perform eye or vision surgery. [Read more about optometrists.]

Ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who specializes in eye and vision care, including providing comprehensive medical care and management of eye problems, as well as performing eye and vision surgery. 

To become an ophthalmologist in the United States, a candidate typically must:

  • Earn a four-year college degree in the sciences

  • Attend medical school and earn a four-year doctorate degree to become a physician (MD or DO)

  • Complete a one-year internship

  • Complete a three-year residency in the medical and surgical care of the eye

An ophthalmologist eye doctor can provide all the services an optometrist (OD) provides, and:

  • Has more comprehensive training in the medical care and management of eye health problems

  • Is trained and licensed to perform eye and vision surgery

  • May specialize in the medical and surgical treatment of a specific eye disease (e.g., glaucoma or other optic nerve problems) or part of the eye (e.g., retina)

Expandable

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

SEE RELATED: Neuro-ophthalmologists and retina specialists 

Pediatric eye doctor 

A pediatric eye doctor — also called a children’s eye doctor or a kids' eye doctor — can be an optometrist or an ophthalmologist.

A pediatric optometrist typically specializes in the normal development of vision in children and in vision therapy to treat lazy eye (amblyopia), minor eye alignment and teaming problems (binocular vision disorders), and learning-related vision problems. [Read more about pediatric optometrists.]

A pediatric ophthalmologist typically specializes in the surgical treatment of significant misalignment of the eyes (strabismus) and other childhood eye and vision problems (e.g., congenital cataracts). [Read more about pediatric ophthalmologists.] 

Which eye doctor to choose

For routine eye exams and contact lens fittings, most people choose an optometrist. Therefore, most prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses are written by ODs.

There are several reasons for this, including:

  • ODs are primary eye care providers. The training of optometrists is designed primarily for routine eye and vision care. Most people don’t need the specialized medical care or eye surgery provided by an ophthalmologist. Just as most people who seek routine dental care see a dentist rather than an oral surgeon, most people who need routine eye and vision care see an optometrist rather than an ophthalmologist.

  • Greater availability. There are more optometrists than ophthalmologists. In the United States, there were an estimated 46,000 licensed optometrists* and 19,063 ophthalmologists** in 2019-2020. Also, optometrists tend to be more widely spread geographically, whereas ophthalmologists tend to be located in relatively large population centers.

  • Cost. Most of the services provided by both optometrists and ophthalmologists are at least partially covered by medical insurance or vision insurance. But if you don’t have insurance coverage, a routine eye exam provided by an optometrist tends to cost less than an eye exam performed by an ophthalmologist.  

Best eye doctor for specific needs

If you have needs beyond a routine eye exam or contact lens fitting, the following table lists which type of eye doctor is likely the best choice for your specific needs.

NOTE: This table is intended as a general guide only to help you with your search for specialized eye care and is not all-inclusive. The best eye doctor for your needs depends on several factors and may not be predicted with 100% accuracy by the following suggestions. Also, the scope of specialized eye care provided by optometrists may vary depending on where you live.

Specific Problem or Need"Best" Eye Doctor
Routine eye exams for kidsOptometrist or ophthalmologist
Congenital eye problemsPediatric ophthalmologist
Crossed eyesPediatric ophthalmologist
Learning-related vision problemsPediatric optometrist
Eye surgery (all kinds)Ophthalmologist
LASIK (optional vision surgery)Ophthalmologist (refractive surgeon)
GlaucomaOptometrist or ophthalmologist
Macular degeneration (mild)Optometrist or ophthalmologist
Macular degeneration (advanced)Ophthalmologist (retina specialist)
Eye problems caused by diabetesOphthalmologist (retina specialist)
Optical aids for visual disabilitiesOptometrist (low vision specialist)

Referrals

An important consideration when choosing an eye doctor is the recommendation of friends, family members and co-workers. Word-of-mouth referrals often provide the best way to find a friendly, competent and caring eye doctor and avoid unpleasant surprises when you seek eye and vision care.

If you need specialized eye care, the optometrist or general ophthalmologist that provides routine eye exams for you and your family will be able to refer you to an appropriate specialist for specific eye health and vision needs. 

READ MORE: What is an optician? and What is an ophthalmic technician?

Notes and References

*Statista. Number of eye care professionals in the United States in 2014 and 2020. https://www.statista.com/statistics/448742/eye-care-professionals-in-the-us-forecast/

**Health Resources & Services Administration. Area Health Resources Files. https://data.hrsa.gov/topics/health-workforce/ahrf

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Gary Heiting, OD

Gary Heiting, OD, is a former senior editor of AllAboutVision.com. Dr. Heiting has more than 30 years of experience as an eye care provider, health educator and consultant to the eyewear ... Read more