An eye doctor can play an important role in your eye health as well as your overall health.

You should receive regular eye exams even if you don't have trouble seeing clearly. An eye doctor can detect any potential issues and vision changes to help you maintain eye health and enhance your eyesight.

Choosing an eye doctor is a personal process based on what you need and are specifically looking for.

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

Optometrists can perform eye exams, fit you for prescription corrective eyewear, prescribe medications related to eye health, and help with surgical care involving the eyes. Ophthalmologists are more specialized. They are trained to do all the things optometrists do, but they also perform eye surgeries and diagnose certain medical conditions. (Learn More)

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists will need to be licensed to practice medicine in the state where they practice. Many also choose to be board-certified. (Learn More)

To find a doctor in your area, you may start with personal referrals. You can also get recommendations from your primary care doctor, insurance company, local hospitals, or state medical boards. (Learn More)

The Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist

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Both optometrists and ophthalmologists are eye doctors with high levels of schooling and training. Both are trained to perform routine eye exams, fit you for prescription eyeglasses or contacts, prescribe medications related to eye health, and screen for common eye and health issues. An optometrist earns a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree.

An ophthalmologist is more specialized than an optometrist. They carry a medical doctorate as either a medical doctor (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO).

As a medical doctor, ophthalmologists are able to diagnose diseases and health problems as well as perform eye surgery. Many ophthalmologists also specialize in a specific field of eye health care, such as surgery or pediatric care.

If you are seeking routine eye care, an optometrist is often a good choice. They are often cheaper and more accessible than ophthalmologists. Insurance may cover an optometrist visit more readily than a specialized ophthalmologist exam as well.

If you suffer from eye issues like eye diseases or medical conditions that may or may not be related to the eyes, a more specialized approach is often ideal. Visit an ophthalmologist for this.

State laws vary regarding which services optometrists are licensed to perform. Most of the time, these eye doctors can assist in preoperative and postoperative surgical eye care, while ophthalmologists carry out the actual surgical procedure. In some states, optometrists may be able to perform minor eye surgeries.

If you require specialized care or need eye surgery, an ophthalmologist will typically be your best bet.

Credentials and Experience

Eye doctors of any form will need to be licensed through the state in which they practice medicine.

Each state has slightly different rules, and your state medical board of ophthalmology or optometry can advise you on what the exact licensure requirements are. Optometrists and ophthalmologists will need to be certified by an accredited medical association and licensed by the state.

Seek out an eye doctor who has specific experience in what you need. If you are looking for laser eye surgery, choose an ophthalmologist who performs these procedures on a routine basis.

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can choose subspecialties and have specific areas of expertise in which they are most comfortable providing services. They may obtain additional education and certifications for these specialties. You can ask to see any and all certifications and licensures.

Optometrists and ophthalmologists can also decide to become board-certified through the American Board of Optometry or the American Board of Ophthalmology. Board certification is a voluntary credential that shows an additional level of commitment to excellence above and beyond what is required to practice medicine.

Finding and Choosing a Local Doctor

Personal referrals can be one of the best ways to find a local eye doctor. Friends and family members, as well as your primary care provider or other local health care providers, can offer insight and personal recommendations on eye doctors in your area.

man smiling at computer

Departments of optometry or ophthalmology within area hospitals and medical centers can be great resources for finding a local and licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist, the National Eye Institute (NEI) explains. Your state should also have a local chapter or association of optometrists and ophthalmologists that can be a solid resource for finding local care.

Each year U.S. News & World Report publishes a ranking of the best hospitals. You can use this list to seek high-level eye care by specialty.

Some sites offer specialized searches to find local doctors and medical recommendations as well. For example, DocFinder provides links to specific states and their medical boards and state licensing information on local doctors.

There are additional things to consider when choosing an eye doctor.

  • Do your research, and be sure that your insurance provider will cover the doctors you are looking at. Some insurance providers will require you to stay in a particular network to get coverage. Ask your insurance company to provide you with a list of contracted or accepted providers and go from there.
  • Ensure that the doctor you are choosing has experience with what you need. If you are seeking eye care for a child, for example, be sure that the eye doctor has experience with pediatric care.
  • You should feel comfortable with the doctor you choose. This is a personal choice and can vary from person to person. Since your eye doctor will be helping you with your eye health, you will need to feel at ease discussing medical and vision issues with them, and personality can matter for this. You may need to shop around a bit to find the best fit.
  • Understand that your needs may change. You may start out only needing routine eye care that can be provided by an optometrist. An eye-related issue may come up that will then require the services of an ophthalmologist at some point. Often, optometrists and ophthalmologists work out of the same office and can work together to provide a high level of seamless eye care.

Routine eye exams and regular care provided by an eye doctor are important aspects of maintaining your overall health and well-being. It’s worth the time and effort to find a local eye doctor you trust.

References

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

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

Contact a State Medical Board. (2018). Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB).

American Board of Optometry. (2015). American Board of Optometry.

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

Finding an Eye Care Professional. (June 2016). National Eye Institute (NEI).

Find the Best Hospital for You. (2019). U.S. News & World Report.

DocFinder. Administrators in Medicine.