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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?

Among the many services optometrists provide, you may be surprised at what your optometrist can also treat. In fact, there are several injuries you can (and should) see your optometrist for instead of going to an emergency room or urgent care center, such as chemical burns or a blow to the face

Some of the services offered by an optometrist include: 

On top of primary eye care, your optometrist also plays a significant role in your overall health care. A comprehensive eye exam can often detect health conditions seemingly unrelated to your eyes, like diabetes, high blood pressure, aneurysms, and lupus

When Should You See an Optometrist?

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

Even if you have a problem that you’re not sure your optometrist can help with, they can likely refer you to a specialist (like an ophthalmologist) or other medical professional if needed. They have the knowledge and professional connections to ensure you get the attention you need. 

If you’re ever unsure, you can always call your optometrist’s clinic for advice. 

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 2—in-depth—years of training (called a Fellowship). They can be in areas like glaucoma, retinal conditions, pediatrics, neurology, plastic 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 they’re also medical doctors, ophthalmologists can also sometimes recognize health conditions not directly related to the eyes and refer the patient to the right medical professional. 

Because many ophthalmologists subspecialize in certain areas, their extra training means they can care for more complex conditions in specific areas of the eye or certain groups of patients. 

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. 

In general, you should see your optometrist for primary eye care, like routine eye exams. But if you have a more complex issue or need medical or surgical care, your optometrist can refer you to an experienced and trusted ophthalmologist. 

An optometrist examining a patient's right eye using a slit lamp machine in an optometrist office

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 routine eye care, like eye health exams, refilling eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions, eye medication prescriptions, monitoring and managing eye diseases, or emergency eye care services. 

Visit an ophthalmologist for more complex medical care, 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. 

A Necessary COVID-19 Disclaimer

COVID-19 has changed a lot about our world. Since the rise of the pandemic, ophthalmologists are being booked months in advance, and patients are finding it difficult to see an ophthalmologist for anything but emergency care. But your friendly neighborhood optometrist is available as an essential service and can provide many of the same services an ophthalmologist can. When you need eye care, whether a routine eye exam or ongoing management of glaucoma or AMD, then give your optometrist a call. They’ll likely be able to help.

Written by Dr. Leslie E. O’Dell

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