What is the Difference Between Optometrists and Ophthalmologists?

Optometrists and ophthalmologists are both eye specialists. What sets them apart are levels of training and areas of expertise. An optometrist conducts eye exams and can prescribe eyeglasses, contacts, and medications. The ophthalmologist specializes in vision correction, surgical, and medical care of the eyes. Now, let’s peer closer into the distinctions between these professionals.

What is an optometrist?

Optometrists are the eye specialists most people see regularly. They diagnose and treat many eye conditions that do not require surgery or advanced specialized care. The services they provide include:

  • Vision screenings
  • Comprehensive eye exams
  • Eyeglass/contact prescriptions
  • Eye injury assessment
  • Follow-up care after eye surgery

Comprehensive eye exams help optometrists identify other health conditions that affect the eyes like diabetes and high blood pressure.

Optometrists earn Doctor of Optometry (OD) degrees. This degree is completed four years after receiving a bachelor’s degree. Optometrists can treat and diagnose conditions such as:

Optometrist treating dry eye

  • Dry eye disease
  • Glaucoma
  • Strabismus

When an eye health problem is detected that requires specialized attention, the optometrist refers a patient to an ophthalmologist.

What is an ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologists are trained to deliver comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of eye disorders. This means they can do everything an optometrist does. In addition, they specialize in the medical and surgical care of the eye. Ophthalmologists treat eye disorders that can lead to blindness. They often collaborate with other specialists concerning medical conditions, like diabetes, in which vision loss is a secondary issue. Although not a complete list, the eye conditions ophthalmologists treat include:

  • Astigmatism
  • Cataracts
  • Dermoid cysts (benign eye tumors)
  • Eye cancer
  • Lazy eye
  • Ptosis (drooping eyelids)
  • Tear duct obstruction

Common surgical procedures ophthalmologists perform include:

  • Cataract removal
  • Corneal transplant
  • Enucleation (removal of a damaged or diseased eye with insertion of an artificial eye)
  • Strabismus correction (straightening of the eye)

The surgical procedures listed above are sophisticated and require years of additional training beyond optometry. Therefore, an ophthalmologist earns a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. For both degrees, they must complete medical school, an internship, and residency. Like physicians in other medical fields, they have a long educational journey, usually about 12 years after high school.

You should now feel confident in your knowledge of these eye care specialists. Yes, services from these professionals may overlap, but remember the basics.

An optometrist provides quality eye care focused on maintaining vision, eye health, and addressing signs that suggest underlying health issues.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who performs eye surgery and treats more complex eye issues.

If you have eye issues that require corrective surgery or if you are due for a comprehensive eye examination, please contact The Eye Center, with locations in Huntsville and Madison, at 256-705-3937.


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