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Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist: Which Eye Doctor Should You See?

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There Are Different Types of Eye Doctors

If you’ve ever booked an eye exam, needed eye surgery, or had an eye infection, you’ve likely noticed there are different kinds of eye doctors to choose from. From optometrists to ophthalmologists, you may be confused about who you should see and when. 

What’s the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist anyway (besides how difficult it is to spell “ophthalmologist”)? Each eye care professional plays their own important role in your eye care, so it’s helpful to know the difference. 

What Is an Optometrist?

An optometrist (doctor of optometry) is like a general practitioner, but for your eyes. Although the exact services differ from practice to practice, optometrists provide a range of primary eye care services. 

What Services & Treatments Can Optometrists Provide?

While all Optometrists are trained to provide primary care for your eyes, they are perhaps best known for their expertise in providing vision correction and care. These eye care clinicians are focused on optimizing your visual acuity and helping you manage and optimize your vision as it changes throughout your life.

Some of the services offered by an optometrist include: 

  • Eye exams and vision tests
  • Eyeglass prescription updates and eyewear solutions
  • Contact lens fittings
  • Examination for common eye diseases and conditions

When Should You See an Optometrist?

You can see your optometrist for most of your routine eye care needs. In fact, you should see them for a routine eye checkup every year or so just to make sure your eyesight is optimized and your eyes are healthy. Many eye diseases develop with no symptoms, so an eye exam is vital for monitoring your eyes in general.

What Is a Medical Optometrist?

There is a new and emerging category of eye doctor in America – the medical optometrist. A medical optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry who has chosen to focus exclusively on providing medical eye care to ensure the total visual and ocular health of their patients. These specialized clinicians have additional, advanced sub-specialty training, often through residency programs focused exclusively on eye diseases and conditions such as dry eye disease, glaucoma, diabetic eye health, age-related macular degeneration, among others. 

What Services & Treatments Can a Medical Optometrist Provide?

While medical optometrists can also offer vision correction services and write prescriptions for glasses and contacts, they are dedicated to providing primary medical care for your eyes, assessing your eye health, monitoring and diagnosing diseases at their earliest stages, and providing a wide variety of therapeutic interventions. 

Services and therapies offered by medical optometrists include:

On top of primary eye care, your medical optometrist also plays a significant role in your overall health care. A comprehensive medical eye exam can often detect health conditions seemingly unrelated to your eyes, like diabeteshigh blood pressureaneurysms, autoimmune diseases and certain neurological conditions

When Should You See a Medical Optometrist?

Even if you have perfect vision or have corrected your vision to 20/20, there’s much more to your total visual and ocular health. Because many eye diseases and conditions develop without any symptoms in the earliest stages, getting an annual medical eye exam can help identify threatening issues before damage occurs. That’s why you should make a visit to a medical optometrist every year part of your regular health routines for optimal health.

What Is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who undergoes advanced eye care training and is licensed to practice medicine and surgery. They are secondary-level eye care providers who often work with your optometrist.

When discussing the difference between an optometrist and ophthalmologist, It’s almost like comparing your family doctor with a cardiologist. You see your family doctor for regular appointments and for general health problems. But if you have a heart condition and need more advanced care, you would see a cardiologist.

Ophthalmologists go through medical school and specialized ophthalmological training, and some choose to subspecialize in specific areas. Subspecialties usually require an additional year of focused training (called a Fellowship). They can be in areas like glaucomaretinal conditionspediatricsneurologyplastic surgery, and more. 

What Services & Treatments Can Ophthalmologists Provide?

An ophthalmologist can provide many of the same services an optometrist can, and many do actually provide complete eye care. Because many ophthalmologists subspecialize in certain areas, their additional medical and surgical training enables them to perform a wide range of surgical and interventional procedures.

Some services and treatments ophthalmologists can provide include:

When Should You See an Ophthalmologist?

Many ophthalmologists and optometrists work together to provide fully comprehensive eye care for their patients. 

You should see your optometrist for general eye care, including eye exams, vision correction, contacts and spectacle interventions. For medical care of your eyes and on-going management of chronic eye diseases and conditions, a medical optometrist is ideal for primary medical eye care. Should you need a medical intervention or surgical care, your optometrist can refer you to an experienced ophthalmologist. 

How to Choose the Eye Doctor You Need

Ultimately, which doctor you see depends on the level of care you need. 

Visit your optometrist for general eye care and eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions, 

Visit your medical optometrist for primary medical eye care, including eye medication prescriptions, monitoring and managing eye diseases, or emergency eye care services. 

Visit an ophthalmologist for interventions like surgical treatments for serious eye diseases, advanced ocular problems, or refractive eye surgery. In most cases, you won’t need to find an ophthalmologist on your own: your optometrist can refer you to someone experienced and trustworthy. 

Written by Dr. Leslie E. O’Dell

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