Understanding the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist

While there is some difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist, there is also a lot of crossover. At Wills Eye Physicians Bailey Weber Wisner, we have optometrists and ophthalmologists on staff to ensure our patients’ highest level of care.

The Difference Between an Optometrist, an Ophthalmologist, and an Optician

Optometrists and ophthalmologists attend four years of school after graduating college. However, optometrists go to optometry school, whereas ophthalmologists go to medical school. While portions of optometry school cover the rest of the body, the primary focus is on the eye. After graduating from optometry school, optometrists can begin practicing right away, unlike ophthalmologists who must complete a residency. Most large eye care facilities will have optometrists and ophthalmologists because of their complementary skill sets.

Opticians usually receive formal training at a two-year program at a professional technical school. Opticians will typically create lenses and corrective eyewear based on the prescription of an optometrist.

Should You Visit an Optometrist or an Ophthalmologist?

Generally speaking, optometrists and ophthalmologists treat similar medical conditions of the eye. However, optometrists do not perform surgery. If a patient needs a procedure, like cataract surgery, an optometrist will refer that patient to an ophthalmologist. In addition to treating eye conditions, optometrists also fit patients for contact lenses and prescribe eyeglasses or other corrective eyewear.

Conditions Diagnosed by an Optometrist

Optometrists can diagnose almost any eye condition; however, the patient will be referred to an ophthalmologist if the condition needs surgery.

Conditions Specific to Optometrists

An optometrist will treat any eye condition that requires special contact lenses or eyewear. Optometrists can also treat some binocular, eye muscle, and pediatric eye disorders.

Do You Need a Referral to See an Optometrist?

Patients need a referral to see an optometrist if their insurance requires one to treat medical conditions. However, patients do not need a referral to see an optometrist for a routine eye exam if they have a vision plan. 

Why Should You Visit an Optometrist and How Often?

In general, optometrists have more training and experience in prescribing corrective eyewear. While it depends on the patient’s age, most people should see an optometrist every two years. The following types of patients should see an optometrist every year: children with glasses, people older than 65 with glasses, people who wear contact lenses, and diabetics.

Female optometrist ready to perform an eye exam