What is optometry?

The optometric field of health care focuses on primary eye care services. Eye doctors examine, diagnose, treat and manage eye and vision disorders. Specialists in this area tackle such vision problems as farsightedness, nearsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia, as well as eye diseases such as glaucoma and cataracts. An optometrist can prescribe glasses, contact lenses and medications and perform minor surgical procedures. People often confuse an optometrist with an ophthalmologist, who can perform complex and delicate eye surgery and eye research.

It's important to take care of your eyes, so you should visit an optometrist for an annual eye exam. Early detection can lead to better treatment of many eye and vision problems. You should immediately schedule an appointment with an optometrist if you experience eye pain, blurred vision, problems focusing, visual disturbances, sudden sensitivity to light, headaches or an eye infection.

In general, you should have no trouble scheduling an appointment to see an optometrist, whether you live in a rural or urban area. Most optometrists work full-time, including evenings, weekends and by emergency appointments. The majority of optometrists are self-employed and have a general practice. Some eye doctors also specialize in areas such as children's vision, sports vision or vision therapy. These specialists work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, retail stores and doctor's offices.

What should you expect from an eye exam?

During an eye exam, the optometrist will administer a visual acuity test that measures the clarity and sharpness of your vision. The doctor also will check your eye movement, the way your pupils dilate and constrict in response to light, how well your eyes work together and your eye pressure.

Your optometrist will determine the overall health of your eye and look for evidence of possible eye disease. After the exam, your eye doctor will conduct any necessary treatment or refer you to an ophthalmologist.

If you have vision insurance, you may have to pay a deductible or copayment for your eye exam. Before your visit, you should make sure that your optometrist accepts your particular insurance plan. Many regular medical insurance plans will not cover your appointment except in cases that are specifically related to eye diseases, not vision problems.

If you do not have vision insurance, other sources may be available to help defray the cost of a visit. For infants, the American Optometric Association administers a program called InfantSEE. An optometrist who is a member of this program will provide a free examination to babies under 1 year old. For children ages 1 to 18, you can contact the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Many parents are also eligible for vision care through this program. Medicare and Medicaid may provide you with care for a low cost or no cost at all.

Pediatric optometry

Children need to have their eyes examined starting at 6 months of age, and again between ages 3 and 5 to ensure they can see properly. Problems with vision can mean learning delays in children, and an optometrist can recommend whether or not a child needs glasses.

READ MORE: Angie's List Guide to Pediatric Optometry

How do you choose an optometrist?

To find a qualified optometrist in your area, check Angie's List for member reviews and office information.

Angie's List also provides links to state medical licensing websites so you can find out if your optometrist is licensed. To become an optometrist in the United States, prospective specialists complete a four-year postgraduate program in optometry, which earns them the title of Oculus Doctor, or O.D. Next, they must pass a licensing examination that focuses on patient care, clinical science and basic science.

Throughout their careers, optometrists must take continuing education to keep up with new developments in eye care and to renew their license at regular intervals. In addition, optometrists may choose to complete a one-year or two-year residency to specialize in a particular area of practice. If you have an eye problem as opposed to a vision problem, you should see an optometrist who has experience with your specific ailment.

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