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What’s the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist?

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Both optometrists and ophthalmologists treat people with vision or eye problems.

An optometrist specializes in contact lens and eyeglass prescriptions, vision therapy, and poor vision.

An ophthalmologist has additional training. They specialize in diagnosing and treating eye diseases, and they perform surgery.

One of the primary differences between the two professions is the education they receive. An optometrist goes to optometry school after completing their undergraduate degree. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor that must attend medical school and become a licensed physician to legally practice.

While their work does occasionally overlap, each profession has its own scope of practice. It is important for people to know when to see an optometrist and when to make an appointment with an ophthalmologist. This ensures that people are receiving the best care for their vision.

What Is an Optometrist?

An optometrist is trained to examine a person’s eyes to look for signs of injury, abnormalities, vision defects, ocular diseases, and other issues associated with general health, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. The primary focus of an optometrist is vision care.

This professional performs a health assessment on patients. They can prescribe corrective lenses and offer clinical advice. If the person requires treatment outside of their scope of practice, they can refer them to an ophthalmologist.

What Is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat a much larger range of conditions compared to an optometrist due to having more training. They may perform eye surgery, treat and diagnose all eye diseases, and prescribe corrective lenses. Ophthalmologists might also engage in scientific research regarding eye disorders and eye diseases.

Due to their medical training, this professional may be able to determine if someone has a health issue that is not specific to their eyes. When this occurs, they refer the person to the appropriate specialist for additional diagnosis and treatment.

An ophthalmologist may choose to pursue a subspecialty in ophthalmology. This requires more training. The following are examples of ophthalmology subspecialties:

  • Glaucoma
  • Cornea
  • Neurology
  • Retina
  • Pediatrics
  • Oculoplastic surgery

Optometrist Education


The first step to becoming a doctor of optometry is to complete an undergraduate degree. People who plan to go into optometry typically pursue an undergraduate degree in the sciences, such as biology or chemistry.

After graduating from undergraduate school, aspiring optometrists have to successfully complete their doctor of optometry degree. This degree takes approximately four years to complete.

If an aspiring optometrist wants to specialize in an optometry subspecialty, they should complete a residency in that subspecialty. How long these residencies take is dependent on the subspecialty and where the residency is.

After graduating with a doctor of optometry, they need to get licensed by the state where they wish to practice. This generally requires an examination. To maintain licensure, there are continuing education requirements that must be fulfilled.

Ophthalmologist Education

Aspiring ophthalmologists should begin by completing their undergraduate degree in the sciences. They typically pursue a pre-med program. Once this is complete, they need to apply for medical school.

After completing medical school, aspiring ophthalmologists must complete approximately four to five years of additional training in ophthalmology. If they want to concentrate in an ophthalmology subspecialty, they need to complete an additional fellowship in the subspecialty.

Once they complete all their education requirements, they need to complete all the requirements to become a licensed physician. To maintain their licensure, there will be continuing education requirements that they must complete throughout their career.

Ophthalmologists can opt to become board certified in this medical specialty. This involves proving mastery of the specialty by completing the rigorous certification standards.

Smiling mature patient consulting with optometrist for an eye checkup

What Does an Optometrist Do?

An optometrist is responsible for examining the eye’s external and internal structures. This is done to diagnose a variety of eye diseases, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal disorders. This professional might also evaluate people with other medical conditions that could affect their eye health, such as diabetes and hypertension.

One of the primary responsibilities of this eye professional is to evaluate vision condition, such as farsightedness, presbyopia, nearsightedness, and astigmatism. The following are common reasons to see an optometrist:

  • For an eye examination or vision assessment for things like general vision health or refractive errors
  • For an assessment of an eye disease
  • For an evaluation for binocular vision
  • To get a prescription for contact lenses or eyeglasses
  • To receive postoperative or preoperative care following refractive surgery, cataract surgery, or retinal surgery

If someone goes to an optometrist and their diagnosis is beyond the optometrist’s scope of practice, they are usually referred to an ophthalmologist.

What Does an Ophthalmologist Do?

Someone might see an ophthalmologist if an optometrist cannot provide a diagnosis or treatment plan for their eye or vision issues. The following are issues diagnosed and treated by an ophthalmologist:

A person might be referred to this specialist for the following reasons:

  • They have a complete or partial loss of vision.
  • They have other health conditions that can have a negative effect on their vision, such as diabetes.
  • They experienced an eye injury.
  • They are experiencing inflammation or pain associated with their eyes.
  • They require a specialist’s care for poor vision.

An ophthalmologist is qualified to perform surgical procedures related to the structures of the eyes. The following are surgical treatments that this professional may perform:

  • Surgery to remove cataracts by replacing a cloudy lens with a clear artificial one
  • Laser or refractive surgery, such as LASIK
  • Surgery to remove melanoma and other cancers from the eye
  • Surgery to correct an eye misalignment
  • Surgical treatment to make the necessary repairs after an eye injury

When the Two Professions Overlap

There are times when an optometrist and an ophthalmologist may work together to provide comprehensive care for a person. For example, if someone goes to an optometrist for an eye examination and the optometrist notices something abnormal that may require medical treatment, they can refer the patient to an ophthalmologist and share information about the case with them.

An ophthalmologist has a larger scope of practice since they are a medical doctor. This allows them to provide more extensive care if it is warranted.


  1. What Is an Optometrist? College of Optometrists.
  2. What Is an Ophthalmologist? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  3. What Is a Doctor of Optometry? American Optometric Association.
  4. Ophthalmology. American College of Surgeons.
  5. What Do Optometrists Do? New England College of Optometry.
  6. Conditions Treated. Rush University Medical Center.

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