What's the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist?

Learn about the differences between optometrists & ophthalmologists & how they work together for quality & cost-effective eye care.

What's the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist?

When it comes to eye health, it's important to understand the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist. Both are eye specialists, but they have different levels of training and areas of specialization. Optometrists and ophthalmologists work together to ensure your eyes are healthy, and who to go to depends on what you need. It's essential to recognize that optometrists and ophthalmologists are two distinct professions with different roles in eye care.

Think of your optometrist as the primary care doctor for your eyes. They do routine eye exams, prescribe corrective lenses, and know when a person needs to see an ophthalmologist. Optometrists can help with routine eye conditions and know when to refer a patient to an ophthalmologist. Oftentimes, optometrists and ophthalmologists work together in the same office.

Ophthalmologists usually perform eye surgeries, while optometrists focus on vision and eye health. Cataract surgery and basic glaucoma surgery are the two most common procedures performed by ophthalmologists, but there are many others. Optometrists and ophthalmologists often collaborate in the same office to provide quality, cost-effective eye care. Studies have shown that care can be more appropriate and cost-effective when optometrists and ophthalmologists work together. The treatments that optometrists are authorized to provide will depend on the state in which you live. Usually, your optometrist will refer you to an ophthalmologist when the diagnosis requires further testing.

The optometrist is not a doctor, but he can examine your eyes for obvious defects, such as squints or refractive errors, and prescribe corrective lenses or eye exercises. An optometrist is an eye doctor who examines, diagnoses, and treats eye disorders and diseases. Ophthalmologists can evaluate and treat eye problems in the same way as an optometrist, but their specialized training allows them to address more advanced eye conditions and perform surgery. You should see an optometrist for all of your routine eye care needs, including annual eye exams and vision correction. For example, a person with good overall eye health may see an optometrist for regular eye exams, while a person who has or is at risk of serious eye conditions (such as retinal detachment) may benefit more from regular care by an ophthalmologist who specializes in retinal care. Projects such as ECHO (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), in which optometrists learn from each other and from ophthalmologists, help reduce unnecessary visits to ophthalmologists so that they can be available to help people who need more specialized eye care.

Preparing to become an optometrist requires approximately four years of studying optometry after earning a four-year college degree. According to the American Optometry Association, optometrists provide 85% of the country's primary eye health care. Where you live and whether or not you have health care coverage can also influence the choice of an optometrist or ophthalmologist for your eye health. Neither profession is “better” than the other - optometrists, and ophthalmologists are different jobs with different responsibilities.

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