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Types of Eye Doctors

Types of Eye Doctors

During my professional day, I often entertain questions from my patients regarding their eye exams. These questions encompass everything eye related, and I try to be as comprehensive as possible when it comes to my patients’ eye exam results. One of the common questions I get is what’s the difference between an optometrist, ophthalmologist, and optician.

Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist

Let’s talk about the similarities first. Both have earned a doctorate, meaning they spent 3-4 years earning an undergraduate degree and another 3-4 years obtaining a doctorate. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists are called “doctors” since both have earned a doctorate degree in their respective fields.

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists are qualified and trained to examine, diagnose, and treat eye-related medical issues, depending on the specific medical eye condition and the laws of each individual state they practice in.

So, let’s talk about some of the differences:


Optometrists are responsible for the primary care of the eye. The main responsibilities of an optometrist include the following:

  • Performing comprehensive eye exams and other vision testing, including dilated eye exams.
  • Prescribing and fitting eyeglasses, contacts, and other visual aids such as low vision aids.
  • Detecting eye diseases and other eye-related visual/medical conditions.
  • Prescribing medication for specific medical eye conditions depending on the laws of the state they practice in.
  • Treating eye-related issues includes refractive errors, dry eye syndrome, glaucoma, foreign body removal, and vision therapy.

Since optometrists are the primary eye care providers, you will most likely see an optometrist rather than an ophthalmologist for your routine eye care. Most people seek eye care because they need a prescription for their eyeglasses and contact lenses. However, as part of the exam, optometrists perform tests that can detect eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, and macular degeneration.

Optometrists can go through further training in the form of internships, fellowships, residencies, and board certifications to further their education and concentrate on a particular field of eye care they are interested in, such as vision therapy, glaucoma, dry eye syndrome, and low vision.

When an eye disease or condition is detected, but treatment is beyond the scope of what an optometrist can perform based on training or the laws of the state they practice in, the optometrist makes a referral to the ophthalmologist to continue care for the well-being of the patient.


Ophthalmologists are medical doctors that have completed four years of medical school and have completed internships, residencies, and board certifications to practice as an ophthalmologist.

Even though part of their training consists of performing eye exams and fitting contact lenses and eyeglasses, their focus is treating medically oriented eye conditions by prescribing medications and performing surgeries and other medically approved procedures.

Ophthalmologists also go through further training through internships, fellowships, residencies, and board certifications to sub-specialize in a particular area of interest.

Here are some major areas that ophthalmologists can sub-specialize in:

Retinal Specialist: The retina is the back of the eye where retinal detachments and tears originate as well as macular degeneration. Retinal specialists are trained to treat eye conditions of the retina by doing surgery, laser surgery, and other medical procedures and techniques.

Glaucoma Specialist: Glaucoma is where internal eye pressure increases and damages the optic nerve, which damages your peripheral and central vision. Glaucoma specialists are trained to use eye medications specific to lowering the eye pressure and surgical techniques to control and manage glaucoma.

Corneal Specialist: The cornea is a transparent tissue at the front of the eye that helps to focus the light through the eye. There are eye diseases specific to the cornea, such as keratoconus, corneal dystrophies, and trauma to the cornea. The cornea specialist is trained to use medications, surgeries, and corneal transplant surgery to treat and manage various corneal diseases.

Outside of medically related eye issues, when you simply need to get your eyeglasses and contact lenses, it’s time to visit the optician.

What Is an Optician?

An optician is the eye care professional that handles your eyeglass, contact lens, and visual aid needs. They go through training through certificate and associate degree programs, as well as an internship in some states. Most opticians work in optical stores and manage them.


  • Check eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions from the optometrist and ophthalmologist.
  • Provide the measurements necessary to fit you for your eyeglass frames and lenses.
  • Make recommendations for your eyeglass frames and lens options.
  • Depending on individual state laws, fit you with contact lenses.

How Do You Choose Which One Is Right for Your Needs?

The ophthalmologist, optometrist, and optician all work together to take care of your eye-related needs. There are a lot of nuances that are not discussed in this article, so I’ll speak in general terms to answer this question.

    • If you need general or primary eye care, a great place to start is the optometrist. The optometrist is the gatekeeper to your eye care needs since he can prescribe eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other visual aids, as well as refer you to the ophthalmologist if you have a serious, medically oriented eye problem.
    • If you have a medical eye problem such as cataracts, retinal problems, or any problem that requires surgery, then go straight to the ophthalmologist.
    • If you have just an eyeglass issue or need a refill on your contact lenses, then go to the optician.


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