What's the difference between optometrists and ophthalmologists?

Optometrist vs. opthamologist? Know the difference between these two professionals and choose the best professional when it comes to eye care.

Optometrist vs. opthamologist? Know the difference between these two professionals and choose the best professional when it comes to eye care.

Do you know the difference between an ophthalmologist and optometrist? More than 90 percent of respondents to a recent Angie’s List online poll say they do. Only 71 percent, however, correctly defined the distinctions between the two professions. Figuring out what the eye care providers can — and legally cannot — do can be complex.

To help clarify, optometrists are trained to provide routine eye care, such as exams and prescriptions for glasses and contacts, but they’re not medical doctors. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors educated and trained to provide the full spectrum of eye care, including the treatment of a wide array of diseases and performing complicated surgical procedures.

Muddying the waters even more, as our cover story discusses, is the push from optometrists in several states to expand their scope of practice to include various procedures that are currently limited to ophthalmologists. Some states have already passed laws allowing optometrists to perform certain surgical procedures, administer injections like local anesthesia and prescribe more medications.

Who you should see for certain procedures has sparked intense debate, with ophthalmologists arguing optometrists are not adequately educated and trained to deal with the risks and potential emergencies that can arise during high-tech laser surgeries and other procedures. But optometrists maintain they now go through sufficient preparation to safely and effectively perform more of these services and give patients the treatment needed.

While 100 percent of Angie’s List online poll respondents would go to an optometrist for an eye exam, only 2 percent say they’d have them administer an injection to treat macular degeneration or other problems; 4 percent would consider an optometrist for laser eye surgery; and 8 percent would see an optometrist to treat glaucoma. All together, 35 percent of members who took our poll saw an optometrist in the last year, 23 percent visited an ophthalmologist, and 14 percent went to both.

Your right as a prospective patient is to make an informed decision. With so many states at least considering proposals to expand optometrists’ scope of practice, it’s important you understand your state laws and regulations before seeking treatment for issues beyond basic eye care. Be sure to narrow your list of providers based on the type of services you need.

If you’re not sure whether to go with an optometrist or ophthalmologist, be conservative in your approach. Carefully research their background, training and experience. Both should be certified by an accredited institution and licensed to practice by your state optometry or medical board. Confirm credentials with your state or by emailing us at licensing@angieslist.com. The bottom line: Safety should always come first.

That’s how I see it.

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Tulsa area resident Pam Odum hoped to ditch her glasses when she saw an optometrist for laser surgery. Instead, her vision got worse, and she now requires a stronger prescription. Photo by Jen Hoppa
Tulsa area resident Pam Odum hoped to ditch her glasses when she saw an optometrist for laser surgery. Instead, her vision got worse, and she now requires a stronger prescription. Photo by Jen Hoppa

Optometrists battle ophthalmologists as line blurs between levels of care


To those of you who state that opthamologists aren't specialists in vision. Are you kidding? Yes, they are surgeons but they are also vision specialists. An optometrist can check basic near/farsightedness and pressure but if you want someone who has all the skills, it should be an opthamologist because not only do they provide the full range of services but their education far exceeds that of an optometrist.

You comment that their education far exceeds optometrists and though you are correct in that the time they are in school does exceed an optometrists their training in ophthalmic specific care does not it is just different. Ophthalmologists attend 4 years of medical school during which time there is very little dedicated to specialty training, most if their ocular training comes after medical school during their residency. Ophthalmologists do in fact spend significantly less time than Optometrists learning about the specifics of refractive (glasses/optical care) because they are supposed to be masters of surgery. Like my father always said do you want to me a jack of all trades...master of none? The answer is no especially with an eye surgeon (ophthalmologist) if you need surgery on your eyes go to a Ophthalmologist that is a SPECIALIST (retinal surgeon, cataract surgeon etc.) If you want a comprehensive eye exam and you have no known issues go to an Optometrist. You can think of Optometrists as your "primary care" eye doctors and Ophthalmologists as your "specialists" . By the way most Optometrists do treat and manage common eye disease (like glaucoma) until they need surgical intervention, at which time they will be sent to a Glaucoma "SPECIALIST".

find it interesting that you can't spell ophthalmologist....

everybody wants to be a doctor, but nobody wants to go to medical school, internship, residency, etc...Optometrists are good @ what they are trained to do, but they are basically technicians...an optometrist doing surgery is like the water boy playing quarterback....MD, FACS

Optometrists would not be doing surgery as it is outside the scope of our proctice in most states. Optomtrists in Oklahoma do perform some laser procedures. Optometry school is a four-year program that can only be entered after completing a four-year college degree. Many graduates do choose to pursure residencies. Optometrists are trained in not only vision care and the care of ocular diseases, but also in rehabilitative vision care for people with vision loss and issues such as double vision and eye strain. These are areas in which ophthalmologists have little training. Ophthalmologists have extensive training in surgical eye care. They are the right people to go to if you need cataract surgery, LASIK, or orther eye surgeries.

Haven worked for both Ophthalmology and Optometry, many do the same things but they are different. Ophthalmologist are specialist in surgeries of the eyes an often have the tools to treat more complex cases. Optometrist, have the training to diagnose most conditions and are experts in VISION. So if you are having trouble seeing, Optometrist is your answer. The worst pair of glasses you will ever get is from a technician at an Ophthalmology practice. Both are important, but Ophthalmology is an overkill for the average person needing an eye exam.

This is a bit of a misleading topic. Optometrists (I am one) are specialists in vision care, such as focusing errors and eye muscle issues. We also provide basic medical care for external eye disease, as well as non-surgical management of internal eye disease. The ophthalmology field is medical and surgical, but they do have some training in vision care as well. However they are not vision specialists. So, which type of doctor to see depends on your problems.


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