Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist: Types of Eye Doctors

If you have ever searched for a new eye doctor, you’ve probably noticed there are different kinds to choose from. Two of the most common types are optometrists and ophthalmologists. What is the difference between an optometrist and ophthalmologist, and how can you determine the right eye doctor for your needs?

The difference comes down to the services they provide. Optometrists attend optometry school and earn a doctorate in optometry, while ophthalmologists are considered medical doctors with an ophthalmology specialty. The two terms sound similar, which frequently causes confusion for those searching for the right eye doctor.

Let’s look at these two types of eye doctors in more detail. We’ll explore their qualifications and specialties as we examine what makes optometrists and ophthalmologists unique.

What Is an Optometrist?

Optometrists make up the majority of the VSP network and can be identified by the letters “O.D.” behind their name, which stands for Doctor of Optometry. After receiving a four-year college degree, Optometrists attend optometry school for four years (that’s eight years of education!), and often do an extra year of residency in specialized fields of eye care such as eye disease, vision therapy, and contact lenses. 

An optometrist is your primary eye care provider and is the eye doctor you would see for your annual comprehensive eye exam, as well as for most ongoing eye-related needs between yearly visits. Optometrists provide for nearly all medical aspects of your eye care, including some surgeries as licensed by their state board or in their state*. Think of them as the “General Practitioner” for all things related to your eyes. Does VSP cover optometrist visits? Learn more about what VSP vision plans cover.

Optometrist Education and Training

Optometry school is four years of additional education after finishing a bachelor’s degree. Upon completion, they earn a doctorate degree, and some go on to complete residencies or pursue additional specializations, such as pediatric care.

What Conditions Do Optometrists Treat?

Optometrists conduct eye exams and vision tests, provide diagnoses and treatment of eye conditions like glaucoma, pink eye (conjunctivitis) and macular degeneration, and consult on pre- and post-surgical eye care. Optometrists are frequently the first to observe signs of many health conditions like hypertension, blocked arteries, diabetes, and even arthritis.  Should a systemic health condition be present, they will partner with your overall health care team to ensure appropriate follow up care.

But their work doesn’t stop there. Optometrists also help with diagnosing eye-related medical conditions, such as:

  • Chalazion — a bump on the edge of the eye
  • Dry eye disease — inflammation of the cornea (protective outer eye layer) or conjunctiva (tissue lining)
  • Strabismus — misalignment of the eyes
  • Glaucoma — a group of eye conditions that damage the optic nerve caused by high pressure in your eye
  • Allergies — itching, tearing, blurred vision, or burning in the eye or on the eyelid

Additionally, optometrists offer a wide variety of services beyond an annual eye exam. They can prescribe corrective lenses and other ocular medications, perform laser eye procedures, administer preoperative and postoperative care to patients undergoing eye surgery, and remove foreign bodies from your eyes.

Reasons to See an Optometrist

There are many reasons why you may wish to see an optometrist. The most common is for maintaining overall eye health and maintaining any corrective vision needs during your yearly eye exam. But you may have eye-related concerns, such as dry eyes or eye strain from working with computers, that they can help diagnose and treat.

Another reason to visit an optometrist is if you have a medical concern that could immediately or eventually impact your vision. Diabetes can lead to glaucoma and even blindness if left untreated. Your eye doctor can determine if diabetes is impacting your vision and help you address potential risk factors. Keeping tabs on your eye health can do more than just save your vision, it can give you a closer look at your overall health.

What to Expect When You See an Optometrist

Do you have an upcoming visit with your optometrist? Start preparing by making a list of any concerns you have before arriving at your appointment. We have all left an appointment and immediately remembered a question we had wanted to ask, so having a list prepared can help you keep track of everything. If you have any questions about insurance coverage for any eye health, be sure to review VSP Individual Vision Plan’s benefits and savings information

When you arrive at your appointment, you may be asked about your personal medical history and any vision issues in your family to help your optometrist spot any potential warning signs. After that, they will begin your exam. They’ll perform a list of tests to examine eye alignment, reactions, vision, and more. Here are some of the more-popular diagnostic tests your optometrist might use at your next visit:

  • Eye muscle movement test: This test checks the alignment of your eyes. The optometrist will determine the mobility of your eyes by watching how efficiently your eyes follow a target, such as a pen or their finger, as it moves in different directions.
  • Cover test: In order to test how well your eyes work together, you’ll be asked to stare at a target while your optometrist takes turns covering your eyes and observing the movement of each eye. Your eye doctor will also be watching for any turning from the target, which is a key characteristic of a condition called strabismus.
  • External exam and pupil reactions: In this test, your eye doctor watches how your pupils adjust to light and objects close to you. At the same time, the whites of your eyes and the position of your eyelids will also be examined for potential strabismus.
  • Visual acuity test: This is the classic alphabet test everyone thinks of when they imagine going to the eye doctor. To complete this test, you’ll look at a poster across an exam room and read appropriate letters to determine how sharp your vision is from a distance.
  • Refraction testing: For this eye test, your doctor will fine-tune to the right prescription by flipping back and forth between lenses and asking you which performs better.
  • Slit lamp (biomicroscope): This device magnifies and lights up the front of your eye to check your cornea, iris, lens, and the back of your eye, looking for signs of certain eye conditions such as cataracts or glaucoma.
  • Retinal examination (ophthalmoscopy): Your eye doctor may choose to dilate your pupils and use a tool called an ophthalmoscope to create a better view of your retina, retinal blood vessels and the head of your optic nerve. This can also be used to look for fluid buildup. 
    Make sure to discuss with your optometrist what tests they’re performing and what is best for you at your visit.

How to Find an Optometrist

There are lots of ways to find great optometrists, including through word of mouth. However, one of the easiest ways to find a VSP network eye doctor is on the VSP website. Find an optometrist in your area now.

What Is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a physician who specializes in diseases and surgery of the eye and adjacent structures and can prescribe glasses and fit contact lenses. An ophthalmologist has completed from 8 to 10 years of specialized training following college. This includes four years of medical school, a year of an internship in a hospital, three years of ophthalmology training (residency) and often a year or two of fellowship training in a sub-specialty area within ophthalmology. Ophthalmologists are licensed by a state medical board. Look for the letters “M.D.” or “D.O.” behind their name.

As your primary eye care provider, your Optometrist will manage most of your eye care needs and refer you to an Ophthalmologist when specialty or surgical care is needed.

What Conditions Do Ophthalmologists Treat?

Most ophthalmologists split their work between vision clinics and the operating room. When working at a clinic, an ophthalmologist works with patients to diagnose and treat eye health concerns such as eye cancers, glaucoma, cornea problems, macular degeneration, and cataracts. They treat acute eye conditions and injuries that need immediate medical attention. 

When in the operating room, ophthalmologists perform several important procedures such as:

  • Corneal transplants
  • Glaucoma surgery
  • LASIK and other laser vision surgeries
  • Cataract surgery
  • Correct tear duct issues
  • Repair damaged or detached retinas

When to See an Ophthalmologist

You will likely know when to see an ophthalmologist because your optometrist will refer you if necessary. If you have eye health concerns that go beyond routine issues or if you’re considering corrective vision surgery, seeing an ophthalmologist is a viable next step.  Need a vision insurance plan that fits your needs? We can help! VSP has a variety of individual insurance options to help you and your family get the right vision coverage. Check out our vision plan finder tool to answer a few short questions, and we will help you find a plan that you love.

What Are the Differences Between Optometrists and Ophthalmologists?

The core difference between ophthalmologists and optometrists is similar to the difference between specialized care and your primary care physician. Your optometrist oversees the general health of your eyes and takes care of the day-to-day vision and eye concerns that you may face. Ophthalmologists come in when there is a specific issue that requires specialty care. While both can perform eye exams, optometrists typically treat general eye health concerns and ophthalmologists take care of specialized eye health needs. Each offers important services, but it is important to remember they have different specialties. 

But What About Opticians?

You may have heard of opticians and wonder how they relate to optometrists and ophthalmologists. An optician is a technician skilled in fitting eyeglasses and lenses as prescribed by your optometrist. Opticians don’t conduct exams or visual tests, which is why they are not listed separately in our directory.  

Which Eye Doctor is Right for Me?

This depends on your specific need, but generally speaking here are the guidelines on which type of eye doctor you should see:

  • An Optometrist provides eye care, such as a yearly comprehensive eye exam or refilling an eyeglass, contact lens, or eye medication prescription. They also can take care of other eye-health related needs between yearly exams and provide early detection of many systemic health conditions.
  • An Ophthalmologist provides medical and surgical treatment of eye conditions.
  • An Optician works at your local Optometrist’s office or vision care center and can help if you need an eyeglass or contacts prescription filled or adjusted.

Both Optometrists and Ophthalmologists are always looking out for your total, not just visual health and are a key part of your overall health care team. Whatever your need may be, an O.D., D.O., or M.D., you can find them within the VSP network of highly knowledgeable doctors.

If you're looking for an eye doctor, VSP offers flexible coverage to help you find the eye care you need, when you need it. VSP has the a large network of independent doctors, and network doctors typically accept new VSP patients. 1 in 4 Americans choose VSP. Learn more about VSP Individual Vision Plans and find the right eye doctor for you. 

Disclaimer: Information received through VSP Individual Vision Plans’ social media channels is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice, medical recommendations, diagnosis, or treatment.  Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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