Opticians, optometrists, ophthalmologists—you know all these “O” words have something to do with treating the eyes, but if someone asked you to explain the differences, you probably wouldn’t feel too optimistic. When you need to see an eye doctor, you could have to see an optometrist or an ophthalmologist, but when it comes to distinctions between the two, there’s more than meets the eye. Here are some differences between optometry and ophthalmology that you should know.
Let’s start with opticians. Think of them as “optical technicians.” Opticians assist optometrists and ophthalmologists by filling patients’ prescriptions for eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other devices for the eyes. Opticians make sure your lenses fit properly and meet your doctor’s specifications. Though opticians are an integral part of eye care who must be recognized by an opticians’ association in order to practice, they are not doctors.
An optometrist, on the other hand, will have completed four years of undergraduate education followed by optometry school, after which they receive a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who further specializes in the eye. Think of your ophthalmologist the way you might think of a cardiologist for your heart or a neurologist for your brain. To become an ophthalmologist, one must successfully complete a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) program followed by three years of residency in ophthalmology.
Why You Go
A visit to the optometrist should be a regular part of eye care. You should get your eyes checked at least once every two years, though as you get older and your eyes change more, more frequent visits may be necessary. Optometrists will make sure your prescriptions for your eyeglasses or contact lenses remain up to date. If you’re seeing an ophthalmologist, it’s for something more specific than a vision test. If you’re ready to give up the glasses and pursue laser surgery, you’ll need to see an ophthalmologist.
The key to the differences between optometry and ophthalmology also lies in the tools at their disposal. Optometrists perform routine eye examinations using tools that should be familiar from popular culture. The phoropter is what you look through to determine whether one lens or another makes text clearer. The retinoscope is the light doctors shine into your eyes to examine movement, and of course, there’s the Snellen chart with its lines of increasingly smaller letters. Ophthalmologists have these tools at their disposal and more. A visit to the ophthalmologist will involve the use of the tonometer, which measures the pressure of fluid within the eye. This is necessary to screen for glaucoma. Ophthalmologists also have access to surgical instruments that optometrists do not.
Whether you’re seeing an optometrist or an ophthalmologist, remember to make eye care a priority—especially as you age—by making your regularly scheduled visits to your optometrist and taking care of your eyes in the meantime.