Ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians: What are the differences?

A common question those of us in vision care hear from patients is “what’s the difference between ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians?” I can understand the confusion, since the three words are so similar, but the differences between the three professions are important, and easy to understand.

  • Ophthalmologists are specialists in medical and surgical eye problems. Becoming an ophthalmologist requires eight years of study beyond college; during that time we are trained to provide the full spectrum of eye care, from prescribing glasses and contact lenses to complex and delicate eye surgery. Many ophthalmologists are also involved in scientific research into the causes of eye diseases and vision problems and developing treatments, as I am with my work at Acucela. This video, titled “I Am Ophthalmologist,” produced by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, does a great job of communicating the passion I see in so many of my colleagues.
  • Optometrists are licensed medical professionals trained to prescribe and fit lenses to improve vision and diagnose and treat various eye diseases. Earning a Doctor of Optometry degree requires completing a four-year program at an accredited school of optometry. Most U.S. states allow optometrists to treat eye diseases through topical therapeutic agents and oral drugs, and to perform certain types of laser surgery.
  • Opticians are trained to fill prescriptions for eye correction. Opticians do not perform medical tests; rather, they interpret prescriptions written by ophthalmologists or optometrists and work with patients to determine which eyeglasses or contact lenses best meet their needs. Unlike optometrists and ophthalmologists, opticians do not require a license and cannot conduct eye exams or treat patients. Opticians may hold an associate opticianry degree or may have apprenticed for a required number of hours.

3 thoughts on “Ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians: What are the differences?

  1. Understanding the differences between each of these professions will help determine the health of your eyes. However, the type of doctor that you must seek will depend on the overall condition of your eyes. You many need to see an ophthalmologist if you have a complicated eye disease or vision problems. On the other hand, it would be fine if you just visit an optician or optometrist for simple eye problems.

  2. Vincent, thank you for your feedback. Understanding the difference between the focus of these ophthalmic health practitioners is certainly helpful information for patients, but I want to stress that only a physician is in a position to determine if an issue they are having is a 'simple' problem as it might be a symptom of a more serious underlying problem. I have personally seen many patients who went to opticians assuming that they had a minor problem and received a wrong diagnosis, only to visit an ophthalmologist too late to be properly treated. The best way to protect your eye health is to undergo regular eye exams with your optometrist so that he or she can fully examine your overall eye health and direct you to an ophthalmologist for additional care if needed.

  3. Vincent, thank you for your feedback. Understanding the difference between the focus of these ophthalmic health practitioners is certainly helpful information for patients, but I want to stress that only a physician is in a position to determine if an issue they are having is a 'simple' problem as it might be a symptom of a more serious underlying problem. I have personally seen many patients who went to opticians assuming that they had a minor problem and received a wrong diagnosis, only to visit an ophthalmologist too late to be properly treated. The best way to protect your eye health is to undergo regular eye exams with your optometrist so that he or she can fully examine your overall eye health and direct you to an ophthalmologist for additional care if needed.

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