Doctor Decoded: Optometrists vs. Ophthalmologists

When it’s time for an eye exam, which one should you see?

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When you’re due for an eye exam, you know you need to see an op-something-or-other. But which one?

The truth is, there’s a lot of overlap between the two types of eye experts. Both are qualified to examine your vision and prescribe contacts or lenses, for example. To figure out whether you should visit an ophthalmologist or an optometrist, you should consider what your goals and needs are for your eye care.

There are two major differences between ophthalmologists and optometrists: training and specialties.

An ophthalmologist is a physician, meaning they are a type of doctor. To be an ophthalmologist, they had to have completed:

  • A four-year pre-medical degree

  • A medical degree

  • Internships

  • And other training.

An optometrist has not gone to medical school, but instead, they’ve completed training from an accredited optometry school. To be an optometrist, they need to have:

  • Completed a four-year bachelor’s degree in a related field (such as biology or physiology)

  • Graduated from a four-year optometry program

  • And received a license from the state to practice optometry.

It’s not just the credentials: Another difference between ophthalmologists and optometrists is what they specialize in. Optometrists stick to vision exams and basic eye care, but ophthalmologists specialize in eye diseases and injuries, and they are licensed to perform surgeries and prescribe medicines. Ophthalmologists might choose areas to focus on, like pediatric eye care or diabetes eye care.

For example, you might see an ophthalmologist to check for eye problems related to diabetes, high blood pressure, or HIV or AIDS. These conditions can all have a negative effect on eye health, and an ophthalmologist is the perfect expert to keep tabs on things. (Learn more about diabetes and eye health here.)

Need a basic vision exam? See an optometrist. 

Need a medical eye exam? See an ophthalmologist.