You’re starting to have problems with your eyes – blurred vision, eye strain, headaches – and your insurance says it will pay for either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist, but what’s the difference? Which eye care professional should you look to for help with your particular vision problems?

Etymology of the Terms

The term optometrist traces back to the Greek words optos (seen or vision) and metria (one who measures). Literally, that would make an Optometrist one who measures vision, but a modern Optometrist does far more than just measure your vision.

Ophthalmologist comes from the Greek words ophthalmos (literally “the seeing”) and logia (study) making an ophthalmologist one who studies seeing. This includes both the diagnostic and treatment domains of the optometrist as well as deeper studies into eye science and more advanced medical treatments.

Training in the US

In the US, optometrists are required to complete four years of undergraduate work, as well as four years of post-graduate work. In addition to ocular anatomy, ocular disease, ocular pharmacology, and other eye-related topics, they also are trained in more generic areas such as human anatomy, general pharmacology, and biochemistry. Upon successful completion of their coursework, they are awarded the license of Doctor of Optometry (O.D.). Some optometrists may also complete a period of residency (i.e. hospital-based training) after graduation.

Ophthalmologists add to the eight-year education of the optometrist an additional year of internship and three additional years of hospital residency. Many choose to add another year or more of training in such specialized areas as Cornea and External Disease, Glaucoma, Neuro-ophthalmology, and Pediatric Ophthalmology. For the additional effort, they are licensed as Medical Doctors (M.D.), or for those trained in Osteopathic schools, as Doctors of Osteopathy (D.O.).

Services Provided

As an O.D., an optometrist functions as a primary care giver providing comprehensive vision care. This includes eye examinations which screen not only for refractive errors, but for medical conditions such as glaucoma, cataracts, macular degeneration, diabetes, etc. Optometrists are licensed to proscribe corrective lenses, remedial drug therapies (limited to eye treatment), and depending on their training and licensing state, may even perform some limited types of eye surgery.

As an M.D. or D.O., an ophthalmologist can provide all the services of an optometrist, but usually fills the role of consulting physician, licensed to provide more advanced diagnostics and treatments including more extensive surgical procedures. As noted under Training in the US, many ophthalmologists will have areas of specialization and may prefer to work exclusively in those areas.

Rule of Thumb for Selecting an Eye-Care Provider

When seeking out a primary care giver, it’s probably best to look for an optometrist as their training suits them well to that role, but for specialized services such as eye surgery, or treatment of advanced eye disease such as cataract, glaucoma, or macular degeneration, the additional training of an ophthalmologist might be needed. In many cases, the two work together in a supportive relationship.

The Third Member of the Team

An annual checkup by an optometrists or ophthalmologists is always a good idea, and in the US, they are the only practitioners licensed to proscribe corrective lenses, but once you have prescription in hand you can enlist the services of the third licensed member of the team, a “dispensing optician”. These are practitioners trained to design, fit, and dispense optical lenses and other vision-related devices.