The Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist

Definition of ophthalmologist

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor or osteopathic doctor who specializes in the medical and surgical treatment of the eyes.

Most ophthalmologists also perform routine eye exams and prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct refractive errors and presbyopia.

Some ophthalmologists also perform LASIK and other refractive surgery to reduce or eliminate your need for glasses and contact lenses.

The abbreviation following an ophthalmologist’s name is MD (Medical Doctor) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine).

When should I see an eye doctor?

You definitely should see an eye doctor routinely to monitor the health of your eyes and the clarity of your vision.

But most eye and vision care does not require the specialized expertise of an ophthalmologist.

Most people can get their eye and vision care performed by an optometrist.

Definition of optometrist

An optometrist is a primary care eye doctor who receives his or her post-graduate training in an accredited school of optometry rather than a medical school.

“Primary care” means optometrists can provide much of the eye and vision care most people need — including performing routine eye exams, detecting and diagnosing eye and vision problems, prescribing eyeglasses and contact lenses, and providing medical treatment of common eye conditions and diseases

Optometrists can prescribe medicine for the treatment of many eye disorders, but they are not licensed to perform surgery.

Some optometrists also provide specialized, non-surgical vision services — including sports visionchildren’s visionvision therapy and low vision.

When a primary care optometrist detects an eye condition that is beyond the scope of optometric care, he or she will refer you to an ophthalmologist for specialized care (such as cataract surgery, medical and/or surgical treatment of complex eye problems, and refractive surgery).

The abbreviation following an optometrist’s name is OD (Doctor of Optometry).

Which type of eye doctor should I see?

The choice whether to see an ophthalmologist or an optometrist is up to you.

If any of the following apply, it may be better for you to directly seek the services of an ophthalmologist:

  • You have sustained a significant eye injury (including a black eye).

  • You are experiencing a sudden loss of vision.

  • You are experiencing significant eye pain.

  • You’ve been under the ongoing care of an ophthalmologist for a chronic eye health problem.

  • You’ve been told by a previous eye doctor that you need cataract surgery.

  • You are interested in vision correction surgery (such as LASIK).

  • You have a strong preference for receiving your eye care from an ophthalmologist.

On the other hand, if any of the following apply, seeking the care of an optometrist may be the preferred choice:

  • You have no vision problems and are seeking a routine eye exam or preventive eye wellness visit.

  • You are experiencing changes in your vision that suggest you might need eyeglasses or contact lenses for the first time.

  • You currently wear corrective lenses and you need to update your eyeglasses prescription

    or contact lens prescription. 

  • Your child is starting school and you want to make sure she has no vision problems that might affect her academic performance.

  • Your child recently failed a school vision screening.

  • You struggled with the vision screening test when renewing your driver’s license.

If your eye exams are covered by your vision insurance, you generally will be able to get your exam from either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist.

If you have no vision insurance or vision benefits plan and you will be paying for your exam with your own money, you may pay less for an eye exam performed by an optometrist.

Also, there are more than twice as many optometrists as ophthalmologists in the United States, so it may be easier for you to find an optometrist near you or schedule an eye exam more conveniently if you choose to have your routine eye exam performed by an OD.

For these reasons, most of the eye doctors that appear in All About Vision’s Doctor Locator feature are optometrists.

If you haven't had an eye exam in the past two years (or your child hasn't had one in the past 12 months), find an eye doctor near you.

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