Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist: What’s the Difference?

Optometrists and ophthalmologists are eye specialists, but they have different levels of training and areas of expertise. Depending on your overall eye health or the type of problem with your vision, you may need to seek care specifically provided by each of these different eye professionals.

An optician often is called an "eye doctor" as well, but they are typically technicians. A licensed optician will help you to choose eyewear and ensure it's the right product and prescription.

This article explains the differences between these eye specialists and how they're trained. It also presents some common eye health conditions and who is typically best positioned to treat them.

Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

Types of Eye Doctors

Optometrists and ophthalmologists are the "eye doctors" people most often think of when seeking care. Other professionals also may be involved in your eye health, including the pediatrician or primary care physician who first refers you to an eye specialist.

In some places, these healthcare providers include the ophthalmic nurse practitioner, who may assess and treat patients for specific conditions, and the ophthalmic physician assistant, who assists with eye surgeries and other procedures.

As the United States population ages, millions of people seek care for cataracts and other age-related eye conditions. You may encounter eye health professionals like nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who can help to fill in the eye care gaps and support ophthalmologists.

Differences Between Optometrist and Ohphthalmologist

The biggest difference between optometrists and ophthalmologists is the type of training and career preparation they receive. This leads to differences in their skills and the services they provide.

Optometrists

The optometrist is the eye specialist that most people see across their lives. Most of them work in private practice but some work at stores that sell eyewear and in other settings.

What They Do

An optometrist assesses your eye health and the quality of your vision through a comprehensive exam. They diagnose and treat many eye disorders that do not require surgery or further specialized care. Some of these services may include:

In many cases, they identify other health conditions that you may not think affect your eyes. Diabetes is one example, although the American Optometric Association notes there are some 270 conditions that may lead to eye and vision changes that your optometrist can detect.

Education and Salary

The optometrist completes an OD degree, which stands for optometry doctor. This degree is completed with four years of additional education after they receive a bachelor's degree and, sometimes, a residency. Some optometrists also specialize in a field like pediatric care.

On average, an optometrist in the U.S. makes $124,300 per year, according to 2021 statistics.

Conditions Treated

The optometrist can diagnose and treat a number of conditions. In some cases, they detect an eye health problem and then refer you to an ophthalmologist or other appropriate care provider.

Some conditions your optometrist can diagnose and treat include:

Treatments Offered

The treatments that optometrists are authorized to provide will depend on the state in which you live. Beyond exams, vision correction, and some minor procedures, optometrists may also:

  • Prescribe various medications
  • Perform laser eye procedures
  • Administer Botox injections for cosmetic purposes
  • Provide pre- and postoperative care to patients undergoing eye surgery

In most cases, you'll need to see an ophthalmologist for surgery and other specialized care.

Visit an Optometrist if You Need...

  • A vision screening or test
  • A comprehensive eye exam
  • An assessment of an eye injury
  • Follow-up care after eye surgery

Ophthalmologists

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors (MD) who diagnose and treat all eye diseases, perform eye surgery, and prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses. They provide the same services as optometrists do, but with additional eye surgery and vision rehabilitation skills.

What They Do

Ophthalmologists treat a variety of eye disorders, from common conditions to more serious eye health problems that can lead to partial or complete blindness.

Some of these eye specialists choose to focus on treatment areas that include:

  • Pediatrics, to diagnose and treat eye diseases and conditions in children
  • Neurology, meaning vision problems with how eyes interact with the brain, nerves, and muscles 
  • Oculoplastic surgery, used to repair damage or problems with bones and other eye structures

Education and Salary

The ophthalmologist is a medical doctor, licensed to practice medicine and surgery. They complete a four-year medical degree after graduation from an undergraduate school. They also complete:

  • A mandatory one-year internship
  • A three-year clinical surgery residency
  • An additional one to two years or more of fellowship

On average, an ophthalmologist in the U.S. makes $255,110 per year, according to 2021 statistics.

Conditions Treated

Ophthalmologists are trained and qualified to treat any condition or injury involving the eye, including:

Treatment Offered

In addition to being able to write prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses, ophthalmologists also have the authority to prescribe any relevant medications to patients.

Ophthalmologists typically provide eye surgery, while optometrists focus on vision and eye health. Cataract surgery and basic glaucoma surgery are the two most common procedures that ophthalmologists perform, but there are many others.

The field of ophthalmology continues to evolve, too. Just as the study of genetics is changing how medicine is practiced in other fields, so are these molecular advances driving treatments in eye care.

Some eye conditions, like Best disease, occur because of a rare genetic disorder. People with this disorder are at higher risk of macular damage and a severe form of glaucoma. Research suggests that genetic testing can help ophthalmologists to better choose the surgical approaches to their treatment.

Visit an Ophthalmologist if You Need...

  • Medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases
  • Rehabilitation or follow-up care after eye surgery
  • Vision and eye health exams
  • Eye medications
  • An assessment of an eye injury

Optician

Some eye health professionals are technicians rather than healthcare providers. They work in the field of opticianry to ensure good vision and eye care.

What They Do

An optician, sometimes called a dispensing optician, is trained to provide the eyeglasses and contact lenses you may wear to correct your vision. They cannot write prescriptions themselves, but can fulfill the order specified in those written by eye specialists.

About half of all opticians work in optometry or physician offices. You also may encounter them in retail stores that sell eyeglasses and contact lenses.

Education and Salary

An optician requires less training and education than optometrists or ophthalmologists do. Many complete two-year degree programs, or learn through on-the-job training.

On average, an optician in the U.S. makes $37,570 per year, according to 2021 statistics.

Conditions Treated

Opticians don't treat eye health conditions in the sense that medically trained eye specialists do, but they are an integral part of your eye health team when you need corrective lenses.

For example, they ensure that a condition like presbyopia, for which you may need bifocals, is properly treated with well-crafted lenses and correctly fitted glasses or bifocal contacts.

Treatment Offered

An optician will discuss your prescription and eyewear preferences with you. For example, not all lenses work well with all styles of eyeglass frame, so they'll make sure that you have the right-sized product.

They'll also order your eyewear, make sure it's properly fitted, and in many cases are available to make minor repairs or adjustments when you make a follow-up visit.

What Does an Optician Do?

Opticians are trained to dispense and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses, and other devices to correct eyesight. They are not required to have any higher education or training, and are not permitted to assess vision, write prescriptions, or diagnose and treat eye diseases.

How to Choose an Eye Doctor

Optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians all play different roles in providing eye care. You may be unsure of which practitioner to see for your needs. If you are having difficulties with your vision—and think you may need glasses or contact lenses—an optometrist is a good choice.

Make sure to get a comprehensive eye exam when seeing an optometrist. If there is a concern, they will refer you to an ophthalmologist for further assessment and any treatment.

It's a good idea to see an ophthalmologist if your eye issue requires surgery, or for specific eye conditions related to your eye or overall health.

When seeing either an optometrist or ophthalmologist, you can expect the quality of care you'd receive with any other healthcare provider. You'll also want to be aware of what services your health insurance covers.

Summary

When looking for an "eye doctor," it's important to be knowledgeable about the differences between the optometrist and ophthalmologist. An optometrist provides quality eye care that's focused on your vision, your eye health, and any changes that may suggest an underlying health issue.

The ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who you will typically see for eye surgery and more complex eye diagnoses and treatment. Many practice in a specialty area, such as neurology.

An optician is not a medically trained healthcare provider but is an important part of the eye care team. They're focused on making sure your eyewear products deliver optimal results.

A Word From Verywell

If you're not sure where to start in a search for eye care, check in with your primary care provider. They can assist you in choosing an eye specialist and refer you for the right care.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why does the optometrist dilate your eyes?

    Many vision problems are linked to defects that change the way light passes through your eyes. These are called refractive errors. The reason for dilating your eyes and shining a light into them is so that your eye specialist can accurately assess these errors, and better understand how to treat them.

  • What vitamins are good for eye health?

    There are quite a few that may help. Lutein and zeaxanthin are nutrients that may lower the risk of macular degeneration and cataracts. Omega-3 fatty acids support your eye's retinal health. Vitamins A, C, and E are antioxidants that may help protect your eye health too.

  • How long do eye doctor appointments take?

    How long your eye appointment takes will depend on the type of care you're seeking. Generally, a comprehensive exam with an optometrist will take about an hour. That may be longer if you're also choosing eyewear in the same office. You can expect an ophthalmology visit to take longer when you need surgery or more complex care. Ask your provider to let you know what you can expect. You also may want to inquire about telehealth services.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Yuko, PhD
Elizabeth Yuko, PhD, is a bioethicist and journalist, as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Dublin City University. She has written for publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and more.