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The Different Types of Eye Doctor: What Are They & How Are They Different?

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Most people regularly interact with one of three eye care professionals: opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists. While there are many more important eye care careers, these jobs cover most essential routine eye care needs. 

Opticians aren’t doctors, but optometrists and ophthalmologists both earn doctoral degrees, although an optometrist’s degree isn’t a medical doctorate.

Optician

An optician isn’t technically an eye doctor, although many people don’t initially realize this. An optician is instead just a trained eye care professional who specializes in fitting people with eyeglasses and contacts. While they serve an important role in eye care, they cannot diagnose or treat eye diseases, and they don’t write prescriptions. 

While the specifics vary by state, opticians generally require a relevant associate degree or a certificate. Then, they may have to enter an apprenticeship or similar training program, where they gain hands-on experience working as an optician. They may also need licensing, although not all states require opticians to be licensed. 

Optometrist

Whether one considers optometrists “true” doctors is something of a matter of debate. Optometrists aren’t medical doctors and don’t go through the extensive medical education associated with that type of doctoral degree. However, they do earn a doctor of optometry (OD) degree, which takes three or more years of college and four years of specialized optometry school. 

At the very least, optometrists study a long time for their role and know enough to properly diagnose, treat, and manage many different eye diseases and disorders. For most eye care needs, an optometrist is the primary health care professional a person will need. 

Ophthalmologist

Of the positions discussed thus far, ophthalmologists are required to go through the most extensive education and training. In the United States, you can expect to go through at least four years of college, four years of medical school, and an additional four or more years of specialized training to become an ophthalmologist. 

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors. The major difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist is that an ophthalmologist has a broader eye care focus and is licensed and capable of performing more eye-related duties than an optometrist. 

Perhaps most notably, an ophthalmologist is trained and able to perform many types of eye surgery. Ophthalmologists also often specialize in different areas, such as these:

Strabismus/Pediatric Ophthalmology

This specialty focuses on eye diseases in children, with a heavy focus on intraocular surgery and crossed eyes surgical correction. 

Some eye conditions that can develop in children are best treated early, as brains develop quickly in children, and part of this development is the brain learning how to properly use the eyes. Missing certain developmental milestones due to problems such as crossed eyes can cause complications in the future, even if they’re later corrected. 

Glaucoma Ophthalmology

While ophthalmologists can already generally help with glaucoma diagnosis and treatment, some specialize further into glaucoma-based care, learning more about the diseases that can cause optic nerve damage and visual field loss. 

While often talked about as if it were a singular condition, glaucoma is actually a group of eye health conditions related to optic nerve damage. These conditions have the potential to cause serious, steady vision loss if not properly addressed.

Neuro-Ophthalmology

Neuro-ophthalmology is an ophthalmology specialty that focuses on how the eyes relate to the brain and specifically how eyes and vision can be affected by neurological diseases. It is arguably one of the more complex subspecialties of ophthalmology. 

These doctors treat vision problems caused by brain tumors, stroke, and more. They also often work at facilities with additional experts who can help with these conditions in other ways, such as neurosurgeons and neurologists. They may regularly work on teams with these people to treat patients.

Retina/Uveitis Ophthalmology

This subspecialty focuses on diseases of the retina and vitreous, two specific and important components of the eye. This area has a heavy microsurgery focus, where an individual masters surgical and laser treatments for a variety of corrections, including learning how to treat retinal detachments and diabetic retinopathy. 

While it’s again worth highlighting that many non-specialists can also perform these surgeries, they are also complex enough that a subspecialist may be needed in some cases. This is often beneficial in order to achieve the best result for a patient.

Cornea/Anterior Segment Ophthalmology

Individuals in this subspecialty are often trusted to perform routine cataract surgery and more complex procedures, such as corneal transplantation. 

They also master refractive eye surgery, the type of eye surgery that can help to provide permanent vision correction. This allows many individuals to no longer need, or reduce their need for, glasses or contacts.

Ophthalmic Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery

As implied by the name, this subspecialty of ophthalmology focuses on aesthetic and reconstructive surgery of the face, orbit, eyelids, and lacrimal systems. They also master the removal of tumors from the orbit and surface of the eye, and they learn to repair bony fractures on certain areas around the eye and face. 

While some of the procedures these surgeons perform may be for people seeking to make aesthetic adjustments to an otherwise healthy face, they can also help people who are disfigured due to injury, disease, or birth defect. 

Other Professions

There are a variety of other eye care careers worth considering if you have an interest in entering the field of eye health. These are some of these careers:

  • Ophthalmic nurse
  • Ophthalmic assistant
  • Ophthalmic technician
  • Ophthalmic technologist
  • Ophthalmic scribe
  • Certified retinal angiographer
  • Certified orthoptist

References

  1. The Three Types of Eye Doctors. (March 2021). American University of the Caribbean.
  2. Steps to Become an Optician in New Jersey. Wiley University Services.
  3. Ophthalmology. American College of Surgeons.
  4. Can Any Ophthalmologist Perform Surgery? American Academy of Ophthalmology.
  5. Careers in Eye Care. Eyetec.net.

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