What is the Difference between an Ophthalmologist, an Optometrist and an Optician?

What is the Difference between an Ophthalmologist, an Optometrist and an Optician?
April 8, 2017 Brian Anding MD

What is the Difference between an Ophthalmologist, an Optometrist and an Optician?

If it is time to have your eyes checked, it might seem simple to search for an eye specialist in your local area. What many patients don’t always realize is that there are different types of eye care professionals so it is important to understand the differences in order to be sure that you are visiting the one who can most effectively help you.

The term “eye doctor” is a category for two professions in the industry: Ophthalmologists and Optometrists. Additionally, Opticians can work alongside the eye doctor to help with the patient’s glasses selection. The levels of training vary depending on the person’s expertise.

Here is a breakdown of the three specialties so you can choose the appropriate eye care professional:


Ophthalmologist using a surgical microscope

An ophthalmologist can be either a medical doctor (M.D.) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO). An ophthalmologist has the highest level of education giving them the ability to not just diagnose eye disease but to surgically treat it. If you need surgery, you will be referred to an ophthalmologist. Ophthalmologists generally do comprehensive eye examinations that focus on progressive eye disease states, then if medically necessary, surgically treat the eye.

A general ophthalmologist will complete a four year undergraduate degree followed by four additional years of medical school, either to become a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO). Medical school is then followed by a three year residency studying eye disease and surgical methods to treat such disease. An ophthalmologist can then choose to gain further specialized training, referred to as a sub-specialty, through what is called a Fellowship which focuses even further on specific disciplines such as glaucoma, corneal eye disease and retinal disease. Most Fellowships last one to two years.


Optometry exam room.

Primary vision care is generally offered by an optometrist who is specifically trained to monitor overall health of the eyes. The optometrist will use a range of tests to check vision and identify any potential eye disease states that might be present. Optometrists focus on refractive error as well as treatment and maintenance of eye abnormalities such as glaucoma. If the optometrist determines that a patient has an eye disease beyond the scope of what they can treat, or if they determine that surgical treatment to correct a problem may be necessary, they will refer to an ophthalmologist. An optometrist will often collaborate with the ophthalmologist by performing the pre-operative and post-operative care while the ophthalmologist performs the surgery.

A Doctor of Optometry (OD) will complete a four year undergraduate degree followed by four additional years of optometry school. An optometrist can perform all basic vision tests and eye examinations as well as identify and treat many eye abnormalities.


Optician holding a pair of eyeglasses

Even though opticians aren’t eye doctors, they are still integral to your vision care. These technicians are trained to fit frames and eyeglass lenses. Opticians do not perform any tests to identify prescription strength or eye diseases, but they work hand-in-hand with an eye doctor to make sure the eyeglasses are manufactured to the eye doctor’s exact specifications. The optometrist or ophthalmologist will write the prescription for vision correction lenses then the optician will use that information to help the patient order the correct glasses.

The term optician isn’t governed or regulated as a professional description. It is not necessary to complete specific education requirements to become an optician. Most opticians are trained on-the-job in an eye care center.


Family Physician

If a patient has been diagnosed with an eye-related disease or injury by their primary care (family) physician, they will often be referred to an ophthalmologist or an optometrist depending on the severity of the condition. At the same time, there are instances when the eye doctor diagnoses a systemic condition and advises the patient to talk with their primary care physician. The goal is for all medical professionals to work together to support the patient’s overall health in the best way possible.


About the Author









Dr. Brian Anding is a licensed Bedford Ophthalmologist. He has been with Nethery Eye Associates since January 2008 and has a great reputation for providing excellent eye care for his patients.