Our Readers Want to Know: What Is the Difference Between an Ophthalmologist and an Optometrist?

Editor’s note: One of the many benefits associated with an online information center and website, such as VisionAware, is the ability to track readers’ search terms [i.e., information readers are seeking as they search the Internet]. Since the earliest days of VisionAware.org, the following questions about eye doctors and eye care consistently rank within the top ten searches and are especially relevant during Healthy Vision Month:

  • What are the different kinds of eye doctors?
  • What is the difference between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist?

Ophthalmology and Ophthalmologists

American Academy of Ophthalmology logo

What is ophthalmology?

Ophthalmology is a branch of medicine that specializes in the anatomy, function, and diseases of the eye.

What is an ophthalmologist?

  • An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic physician who specializes in the medical and surgical care of the eyes and the prevention of eye disease. An ophthalmologist diagnoses and treats refractive, medical, and surgical problems related to eye diseases and disorders.
  • Ophthalmologists are licensed by state regulatory boards to practice medicine and surgery, as well as deliver routine eye care.
  • An ophthalmologist will have the initials “M.D.” (Doctor of Medicine) or “D.O.” (Doctor of Osteopathy) after his or her name.

What does an ophthalmologist do?

  • Ophthalmologists are trained to provide the full spectrum of eye care, from prescribing glasses and contact lenses to complex and delicate eye surgery.
  • Ophthalmologists treat eye diseases, prescribe medications, and perform all types of surgery to improve, or prevent the worsening of, eye and vision-related conditions.

How is an ophthalmologist educated and trained?

  • In addition to four years of medical school and one year of internship, all ophthalmologists spend a minimum of three years of residency (hospital-based training) in ophthalmology.
  • During residency, ophthalmologists receive specialized training in all aspects of eye care, including prevention, diagnosis, and medical and surgical treatment of eye conditions and diseases.
  • Often, an ophthalmologist spends an additional one to two years training in a subspecialty, or a specific area of eye care, such as glaucoma or pediatric ophthalmology.
  • All ophthalmologists are required to fulfill continuing education requirements to stay current regarding the latest standards of care.

More Information about Ophthalmology

  • For more information, you can visit the American Academy of Ophthalmology website.
  • The EyeSmart® public awareness campaign, sponsored by the American Academy of Ophthalmology, helps Americans to take charge of their eye health; know their risk factors for eye diseases; and understand how ophthalmologists can help prevent, diagnose, and treat eye conditions.

Optometry and Optometrists

American Optometric Association logo

What is optometry?

Optometry is a vision care specialty that is concerned with the health of the eyes, the visual system, and related structures.

What is an optometrist?

  • An optometrist is a health care professional who specializes in function and disorders of the eye, detection of eye disease, and some types of eye disease management. An optometrist conducts eye examinations, prescribes corrective contact lenses and glasses, and diagnoses and treats eye diseases and disorders.
  • Optometrists are licensed by state regulatory boards that determine their scope of practice, which may vary from state to state.
  • An optometrist will have the initials “O.D.” (Doctor of Optometry) after his or her name.

What does an optometrist do?

  • Optometrists are trained to examine the eyes for visual defects, diagnose problems or impairments, prescribe corrective lenses, and provide certain types of treatment.
  • Many (but not all) U.S. states have passed legislation that allows optometrists to perform certain surgical procedures, such as laser treatment; administer injections, such as local anesthesia or treatment for macular degeneration; and prescribe additional diagnostic, therapeutic, and oral medications. Visit the American Optometric Association website to determine if your state permits optometrists to perform these additional procedures.

How is an optometrist educated and trained?

  • Prior to admittance into optometry school, optometrists typically complete four years of undergraduate study, culminating in a bachelor’s degree.
  • Optometrists then complete a four-year postgraduate program in optometry school to earn the Doctor of Optometry degree.
  • Some optometrists go on to complete one- to two-year residencies with training in a specific sub-specialty area, such as pediatric or geriatric eye care, specialty contact lens, ocular disease, or neuro-optometry.
  • All optometrists are required to fulfill continuing education requirements to stay current regarding the latest standards of care.

More Information about Optometry

Low Vision Specialist

  • Many optometrists and some ophthalmologists have additional credentials or specialization in low vision testing, diagnosis, and treatment, and are trained to conduct low vision eye examinations and prescribe special low vision optical devices.
  • If you’re experiencing significant vision loss, a low vision specialist can determine whether special optical and non-optical devices, improved lighting, or other types of specialized services and equipment can help make the best use of your remaining vision.
  • You can find a listing of low vision specialists in the “Low Vision Services” category in the VisionAware Directory of Services.

In addition to the low vision professionals in the Directory listings, you can find low vision providers through the following directories:

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