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Ophthalmologist or Optometrist: Which Type of Eye Doctor Is Right for You?

Choosing the right type of eye specialist—an ophthalmologist, optometrist, or optician—for your eyecare needs may not be an easy decision if you don’t understand the differences between these professionals. Learn about who to visit for an eye exam, vision test, glasses and contacts, or more serious eye conditions and whether you need an ophthalmologist vs. optometrist.

By Joelle Klein

Reviewed by Quinn Wang, MD

Ophthalmologists. Optometrists. Opticians. While there are a variety of eyecare professionals who can help you with everything from diagnosing eye conditions to getting fitted for contact lenses, finding the right professional for your needs is an important first step. Each eyecare provider performs specific roles in caring for your vision and eye health. However, there is a marked difference in the level of training and areas of expertise for each. Here, we help shed light on what each eye specialist does and which one you should visit.

What Is an Optometrist?

An optometrist is an eyecare professional with a four-year undergraduate degree followed by a four-year post-graduate degree called Doctor of Optometry, abbreviated as OD. In some cases, optometrists complete an additional year of residency in order to specialize in an eyecare subspecialty such as pediatric or geriatric optometry.

What to Expect From an Optometrist

At your appointment with an optometrist, you can receive a comprehensive medical eye exam, vision test, and, if necessary, a prescription for eyeglasses or contacts. In addition, an optometrist can help manage, monitor, and treat early and straightforward cases of certain eye diseases such as glaucoma, diabetic eye disease, and cataracts. 

Optometrists are not medical doctors. For complex or serious eye conditions and for surgical management, an optometrist will refer a patient to an ophthalmologist.

What Is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO). After four years of undergraduate studies and four years of medical school, they complete a four-year ophthalmology residency. Some ophthalmologists go on to complete a one or two-year fellowship to specialize in, for example, glaucoma, cornea, or neurology.

What to Expect From an Ophthalmologist

Ophthalmologists can cover all your eyecare needs, from vision tests to cataract surgery and everything in between. In addition to providing the same services as an optometrist, they diagnose and treat all eye conditions, perform eye surgeries, and help with rehabilitation after eye surgery. Ophthalmologists also treat and manage eye conditions that are related to other health issues and diseases such as diabetes or arthritis. 

If you need laser eye surgery or intraocular (i.e. inside the eye) surgery, an ophthalmologist is the right choice. An ophthalmologist can also help treat or manage serious eye conditions such as advanced macular degeneration or diabetic retinopathy.

What Is an Optician?

An optician is a licensed corrective eyewear technician that receives special training and a one or two-year certificate to fit and fill your eyeglass or contact prescription. They are not doctors and can’t perform eye exams or diagnose eye disease.

What to Expect From an Optician

An optician works in an eye doctor’s office or at an optical retail store and will assist you with the eyeglass or contact lens prescription you received from an optometrist or ophthalmologist. They may begin by recommending the best frame for your face. Then they’ll take care of ordering your contacts or eyeglasses and help fit them once they arrive. Opticians can also readjust and repair glasses.  

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya

Which Eye Specialist Should You See?

Before choosing an eyecare professional, think about your specific needs and the type of expertise that’s required. Here are a few things to consider:  

  • Training and Expertise: For generally healthy people looking for routine eye health exams and vision care, a visit to an optometrist is a good place to start. For those with glaucoma, macular degeneration, or other eye conditions, an ophthalmologist is likely the right choice. 
  • Availability: Did you know that there are many more optometrists than there are ophthalmologists? In 2020, there were about 46,000 optometrists compared to 19,063 ophthalmologists in the United States. Optometrists are also more widely available throughout the country, whereas ophthalmologists tend to work in or near bigger cities.
  • Cost & Insurance: Always consider what types of insurance you have, what your eyecare professional accepts, and how much your visit will cost. For example, if you’re visiting an ophthalmologist for treatment of an eye condition like glaucoma, your visit will be covered by your medical insurance. However, if you’re visiting an optometrist for a basic eye exam and new eyeglass prescription, your visit would likely only be covered by vision insurance, if you have it. 

Once you have an idea of the right type of eye doctor for you, ask friends, family and other doctors that you trust for recommendations in your area. 

Joelle Klein
July 22, 2022
6 mins reading
Reviewed by:
Quinn Wang, MD
Quinn Wang, MD