Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist: Differences and Overlaps

 Ophthalmic practitioner holding device to her own eye

Sebastian Rothe / EyeEm / Getty Images

Heading to the eye doctor can often mean different things depending on whether you're planning to see an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. While both of these types of practitioners are versed in understanding the eye, with some areas of overlap, they also can have different areas of expertise.

These professionals are not necessarily interchangeable. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in treating the eye. Optometrists are healthcare professionals who specialize in the treatment and management of vision changes and eye health.

While optometrists can usually handle most medical aspects concerning the eye, they differ from ophthalmologists in that they don't perform surgery. Before selecting an eye professional, here's what you need to know about what each can offer you. If one can't help, you may be referred to the other or another specialist who can assist.

Services Provided by Optometrists vs. Ophthalmologists
 Optometrist Healthcare professional specializing in the eye. They can examine patients' eyes, prescribe glasses and contacts, assess and medically treat eye-related issues.
 Ophthalmologist Medical doctor who can perform surgery in addition to being able to provide all services that an optometrist can. They can carry out any eye-related procedure and are also knowledgeable about general medicine.

What Does an Optometrist Do?

Optometrists are usually who people first turn to for their eye and vision needs. They're adept at examining patients for eye-related diseases and disorders, as well as treating and managing many of these.

They have expertise in evaluating vision and prescribing any needed glasses or contact lenses. Optometrists can also routinely screen for eye conditions such as glaucoma.

In addition to having a pivotal role in eye health, optometrists can have an important role in finding chronic systemic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, which may at times be detected during an eye exam.


Some of the types of things optometrists concentrate on treating include vision issues such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism. These can impact reading as well as visual functioning.

Procedural Expertise

You may visit an optometrist for a variety of reasons. These eye professionals are skilled at the following:

  • Testing vision and interpreting acuity results
  • Counseling patients about maintaining good general eye health
  • Identifying vision issues such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism, as well as screening for eye diseases such as glaucoma
  • Analyzing vision and prescribing appropriate spectacle and contact lenses or low-vision aids
  • Prescribing certain medications (in some states)
  • Overseeing low-vision rehabilitation or other vision therapy
  • Handling some preparation for eye surgery as well as some aftercare, such as vision examinations before and after surgery

Optometrists commonly will offer comprehensive eye exams using lots of equipment. During these, they will measure visual acuity using charts to help determine how clearly you can distinguish different letters, both up close and at a distance.

They will also assess color vision, depth perception, eye muscle movement, and the pupil's response to light.

Some tests optometrists may typically perform include:

  • Performing keratometry or topography to test the curvature of the cornea, the clear dome of the eye: These may be particularly important for fitting contact lenses.
  • Evaluating refraction with the aid of a device known as a phoropter: With this, you can look through the device while the optometrist inserts different strengths of lenses to allow you to compare and determine the best one for you.
  • Assessing eye movement to determine how well the eyes work together
  • Evaluating eye health by widening the pupil and using a slit lamp microscope to look inside the eye and examine the various structures

Education and Training

Optometrists have to obtain a doctor of optometry (O.D.) degree in order to practice. This is a degree that takes four years to complete. Also, in all states, optometrists are required to have a license.

Appointment Tips

You can schedule an appointment with an optometrist directly. You may, however, wish to obtain recommendations first from friends or family. Also, the American Optometric Association offers a tool for finding optometrists in your area.

What Does an Ophthalmologist Do?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who, while trained to treat the whole body, specializes in caring for the eye. Ophthalmologists are trained not only to treat all eye diseases but also to perform surgery.

They can prescribe eyeglasses or contact lenses to address vision difficulties. In some cases, they may also be involved in performing scientific research.


Ophthalmologists can handle any kind of eye problem, both medically and surgically. Some may also specialize in certain areas such as treating cataracts, retinal disease, glaucoma, or corneal problems. They can also perform laser refractive surgery such as LASIK or PRK.

Procedural Expertise

Whatever the eye issue, an ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat it. Common procedures that ophthalmologists can perform include:

  • Refractive surgeries such as laser in situ keratomileusis (LASIK), photorefractive keratectomy (PRK), radial keratotomy (RK), and astigmatic keratotomy (AK)
  • Cataract removal including phacoemulsification and extracapsular surgery
  • Corneal procedures such as transplant, corneal cross linking, and pterygium surgery
  • Glaucoma procedures including trabeculectomy, minimally invasive glaucoma surgery (MIGS), and glaucoma implant surgery
  • Surgery for retinal issues such as tears and detachments including laser photocoagulation, cryotherapy, scleral buckle, and vitrectomy

Education and Training

In the United States, ophthalmologists have to attend medical school, followed by undergoing an additional four to five years of training. They must obtain a state medical license to practice. Some ophthalmologists may go on to spend another year or two of training in a subspecialty such as glaucoma or pediatric ophthalmology.

In some cases, ophthalmologists may also be board-certified, which means they've passed an extensive test given by the American Board of Ophthalmology to assess their level of expertise.

Appointment Tips

To find and schedule an appointment with an ophthalmologist, ask your regular doctor for some referrals. Also, if you have health insurance, check the website for some possible names in the area.

In addition, the American Academy of Ophthalmology offers a tool for finding ophthalmologists in your area. Also, the American Society for Retina Specialists offers a similar tool for area retina specialists.

Before scheduling anything, call your insurance company to find out just what's covered by your plan, what you may be expected to pay, and if any referrals by your regular doctor are needed.

Was this page helpful?
13 Sources
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.
  1. Cleveland Clinic. Optometrist or ophthalmologist: Which is best for your eye care? Updated April 20, 2020.

  2. American Optometric Association. What's a doctor of optometry?

  3. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational outlook handbook. Updated April 9, 2021.

  4. American Optometric Association. Comprehensive eye exams.

  5. American Academy of Ophthalmology. What is an ophthalmologist? Updated January 18, 2019.

  6. University of Rochester Medical Center. Types of eye surgery for refractive errors.

  7. Wills Eye Hospital. Types of cataract surgery.

  8. Wills Eye Hospital. Corneal surgical procedures.

  9. National Eye Institute. Glaucoma surgery. Updated June 26, 2019.

  10. New York University Langone Health. Procedures to treat retinal tears and retinal detachments.

  11. American College of Surgeons. Ophthalmology.

  12. American Academy of Ophthalmology. Training and certification for ophthalmologists. Updated December 29, 2015.

  13. National Eye Institute. Finding an eye doctor. Updated August 28, 2020.