When you set an eye health appointment, you want the assurance that you are seeing a licensed doctor, right? But the optometry landscape is confusing for many people. There are three different types of vision correction practitioners: opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists. Of these, opticians are not licensed medical doctors. But optometrists and ophthalmologists both attend medical school and must pass licensing exams before practicing as doctors.
Of the two licensed medical doctors, what are the differences between optometrists and ophthalmologists? We explore these differences and their similarities, below.
What is an optometrist?
As said above, an optometrist is a licensed eye doctor. Someone practicing in this field of medicine has earned a degree as a Doctor of Optometry (OD). To become an optometrist in Canada, your provider attended seven to eight years of postsecondary education on top of three to four years of undergraduate study. After medical school, they must also take a national licensing exam. They must also satisfy provincial board requirements where they wish to practice.
After licensing, an optometrist’s typical workday includes examining eyes for health and vision problems. They also correct problem vision, also called refractive errors, through prescription contact lenses and eyeglasses. Your optometrist possibly provides additional services, such as vision therapy or low vision care. If you suffer eye disease or other eye health problems, your optometrist can prescribe medications.
If you need eye surgery, your optometrist provides a referral for this procedure. They can participate in your pre-surgical care and aftercare if needed. But they do not perform any surgical procedures.
To stay on top of the latest conditions and treatment methods, your optometrist fulfills continuing education requirements. This keeps their license current, as well as their knowledge of eye care standards.
What is an ophthalmologist?
An ophthalmologist specializes in eye and vision care, like an optometrist. They maintain a medical doctor (MD) or doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) license. Also like an optometrist, an ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats eye disease. They also perform eye exams and prescribe medications when needed for eye health conditions. Your ophthalmologist writes a vision correction prescription for contact lenses or eyeglasses when you need those, too.
Your ophthalmologist attends four years of college as an undergraduate study. They must then attend four years of medical school. After medical school, their ophthalmology residency includes five more years of training before independent practice. The last two years of this time focuses heavily on eye surgery. From here, they can choose to train for another 12 to 24 months for additional specialization or skills.
It is primarily eye surgery that differentiates an ophthalmologist from an optometrist. An optometrist cannot perform eye surgery, whereas an ophthalmologist does. If you visit an optometrist for vision correction and need eye surgery based on a diagnosis, your optometrist refers you to an ophthalmologist.
Do I need to visit an optometrist or ophthalmologist?
If you have no known eye health problems and do not require surgical or specialized treatment, you can choose to see either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. For vision correction and general eye conditions, you will notice little difference, if any, in your treatment. As mentioned before, if you require specialized treatment or surgery, your optometrist refers you to an ophthalmologist.
Like an ophthalmologist, your optometrist can provide medical treatment for common eye conditions, including:
- Dry eyes
- Eye infections
- Other eye problems
- Chronic eye diseases