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Are Vision Tests & Eye Exams the Same Thing?

Glasses in front of eye chart with the words EYE HEALTH visible through lens

You’ve probably seen them offered at specific stores in the mall, or maybe your kids get them in school: vision tests that use automated machinery to measure your prescription. But are these tests the same as eye exams? The answer is no.

Vision tests can be useful in particular circumstances, but they are not an adequate substitute for an eye exam by a skilled optometrist or ophthalmologist. Below, we’ll explain the differences between eye exams and vision tests so that you can understand the best way to monitor your ocular health.

Vision Tests vs. Eye Exams: Key Differences

One of the most significant differences between vision tests and eye exams is the type of person who runs each one. Eye exams must be performed by a qualified eye doctor, such as an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Conversely, vision tests can be run by practically anybody since they rely on automated equipment.

Vision Tests

Vision testing equipment has limited capabilities. There are numerous factors this equipment cannot account for, including:

  • The coordination of eye muscles
  • Eye fixation and alignment
  • Pupil size
  • Anomalies in the lens or cornea

Automated testing equipment can also be thrown off by a patient who moves or a patient whose attention wanders during the test and affects their ability to focus. Eye doctors are trained to look out for these behaviors during exams and prevent them from affecting their findings.

Moreover, automated vision testing equipment does not assess the health of the eye itself. Since many eye conditions and diseases do not directly impact a person’s vision (especially in the early stages), an automated vision test cannot detect them. Vision tests will not tell you if you have:

Auto-refractor used for some vision tests

Eye Exams

Eye exams are usually performed by optometrists, although ophthalmologists are also qualified to conduct them. An optometrist must spend 3-4 years earning a bachelor’s degree, followed by 4 years earning their Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree and an optional 1 year in residency.

Ophthalmologists must spend even longer earning their training and education since they must complete medical school and obtain a medical license. The path to becoming an ophthalmologist typically takes around 12 years.

All that specialized knowledge gives your eye doctor skills and expertise that automated technology simply can’t surpass. During an eye exam, your eye doctor assesses the health of your eyes and visual system along with reviewing your prescription. The process includes:

  • A discussion about your vision, your medical history, and the relevant medical history of your family. Discussions help the eye doctor learn about your needs and allow the patient to ask questions or bring up concerns about their vision.
  • Tests to measure your visual strength and acuity. These tests will include auto-refraction tests to measure your prescription, which may use similar equipment as generic vision tests. However, your eye doctor should also run tests to measure your clarity, use field screenings to identify blind spots, and use their specialized knowledge to verify your prescription more accurately than is possible when using automated equipment.
  • Screenings for various eye diseases. During an eye exam, your eye doctor will screen for glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and other conditions or diseases that automated equipment cannot detect. These screenings are the best way to detect conditions like glaucoma, which can appear even in those with no family history of the disease.

Think of a good eye exam as a physical for your eyes. Experienced eye doctors offer a comprehensive assessment of your ocular health, whereas vision screenings only tell you whether or not your vision is blurry.

There’s No Replacement for Eye Exams

Vision testing can give you a general idea of your prescription, but it can’t tell you why it has changed. Only an optometrist or ophthalmologist can diagnose you with a condition and prescribe the tools you may need to treat or manage it. Remember to book annual eye exams with a qualified eye doctor so that you can keep yourself healthy while keeping your vision sharp.

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  • Written by: Bryan MacDonald

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