There are two main types of eye care professionals: ophthalmologists and optometrists.

An optometrist is generally your primary eye care provider who can provide typical eye care.(Learn More) Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who can provide specialty eye care, medical and surgical care, and a full range of eye care treatments and services.(Learn More)

Choosing an eye doctor is a personal decision. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can be helpful for routine eye care. If you have specific eye conditions or require specialty services, an ophthalmologist may be needed. (Learn More)

Optometrists

After graduating from a four-year undergraduate program, they complete four additional years at a college of optometry. Some may choose to pursue residency in a specific specialty or additional clinical training.

An optometrist will also be licensed to practice optometry by the state they plan to practice in.

The American Optometric Association (AOA) publishes that an optometrist is the primary health care professional that manages care for the eyes. An optometrist is trained to do the following:

  • Perform vision tests and eye exams
  • Diagnose and treat diseases, disorders, and injuries involving the eyes and visual system
  • Prescribe necessary medications
  • Perform low vision rehabilitation
  • Treat dry eyes, eye infections, and common eye problems
  • Provide vision therapy
  • Treat typical eye conditions, including nearsightedness (myopia), farsightedness (hyperopia), and irregularly shaped corneas (astigmatism)
  • Fit for contact lenses and/or glasses
  • Counsel people on both nonsurgical and surgical treatments for managing conditions related to the eyes and vision

Different states have variable laws on what optometrists can medically or surgically treat. Some states may allow optometrists to perform minor eye surgeries, such as those that involve removing a foreign body that may be lodged in the eye.

In some states, optometrists may be able to medically treat certain conditions, including cataracts and glaucoma. Optometrists can provide both preoperative and postoperative care even if they are not licensed to complete the surgery directly.

Each state will have a state Society of Optometry that will detail what procedures and treatments optometrists are licensed to perform.

Ophthalmologists

patient receiving cataract surgery

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors (MD) or doctors of osteopathic medicine (DO) who spend an additional four years in medical school after college or university. They also spend three years in residency and one year in an internship. They also sometimes spend a year or two in a fellowship. Ophthalmologists must undergo at least 36 calendar months of post-graduate training.

Trained to provide a broad spectrum of eye care, ophthalmology is a surgical specialty. There are several subspecialties of ophthalmology that can require additional training as well.

Ophthalmologists are licensed in their state to practice both surgery and medicine. They have training above and beyond that of an optometrist. They are often board certified by the American Board of Ophthalmology.

An ophthalmologist can provide the entire spectrum of eye care from preventative medicine to disease diagnosis, treatment, and management to surgical needs. Ophthalmologists can perform the following:

  • Diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases, injuries, and illnesses
  • Eye exams and vision tests
  • Contact lens and eyeglass fittings
  • Treatment for astigmatism, myopia, and hyperopia
  • Eye surgery
  • Diagnosis of other medical conditions and/or diseases that may not be related to the eyes
  • Research on cures and causes of eye conditions and diseases
  • Medical and surgical treatment for glaucoma, cataracts, crossed eyes, and trauma
  • Plastic surgery related to eye or face care

Unlike an optometrist, an ophthalmologist is not only an eye care professional but also a medical doctor or physician, trained to treat a wide range of conditions, illnesses, and diseases. They have extensive knowledge of the entire body, not just the eyes.

Choosing the Right Eye Care Professional

Ophthalmologists and optometrists commonly work together, often in the same office or clinic, to provide a full continuum of eye care. Both of these eye care health professionals offer a wide range of services.

Generally speaking, if you need routine health care for your eyes, you may choose an optometrist. An optometrist is also often your primary care provider for this purpose.

They may refer you to an ophthalmologist if you require specialty medical or surgical services. In a co-management or team arrangement, the ophthalmologist may perform the surgery and then you may go back to the optometrist for routine eye care.

If you have standard eye care needs, either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist can provide a high level of care. Specialized eye needs are best serviced by a highly trained ophthalmologist.

Your specific insurance policy may dictate which type of eye doctor will be covered. Budget constraints can play into which professional you see, at least initially. If your eye care needs go beyond the scope of an optometrist, you typically will be able to obtain a referral for a specialty provider like an ophthalmologist.

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists are highly trained eye care professionals who are required to keep up with continuing education and remain current on their licensure. Both can provide a high standard of care.

References

What Is a Doctor of Optometry? (June 2012). American Optometric Association (AOA).

Ophthalmology. (2019). American College of Surgeons.

American Board of Ophthalmology. (2019). American Board of Ophthalmology (ABOP).

What Is an Ophthalmologist? (January 2019). American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

How to Choose an Eye Doctor. (April 2018). All About Vision.