Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist
I’m so glad you asked this question! I would say that very few people outside of our profession know the difference between an optometrist and ophthalmologist. I have been asked “is an optometrist a doctor?“ and “What is the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?“ So I’d like to explain ophthalmology versus optometry and optometry versus ophthalmology.
Are Optometrists doctors?
An optometrist is absolutely a doctor. The letters after an optometrist’s name “OD” mean “doctor of optometry” and answer the question “Is an optometrist an eye doctor?” quite clearly. In fact, an optometrist dedicates his or her career to the examination of eyes and the visual system, to protecting our most valuable sense. They prescribe and fit glasses and contact lenses, and in most states may prescribe medications to help patients with their eye condition. They are not permitted to do eye surgery however.
What is an Optometrist’s education?
The education and training of an optometrist consists first of an undergraduate degree, which can be with a major area of study in any subject they want. The prospective optometry student must complete the prerequisite courses in science and math, then apply to and complete a four year curriculum at a credentialed college of optometry.
Once they graduate with their OD degree, a new doctor of optometry must be licensed in the state in which they practice. A doctor of optometry may also do additional training in and specialize in areas such as low vision, rehabilitation, primary eye care, geriatric optometry, pediatric optometry, family eye care, contact lenses, sports vision, or vision therapy.
When I was a medical student, once I discovered ophthalmology, there was no question what I wanted to do. The combination of physics, medicine, biology, optics, technology, and the broad scope of the multiple subspecialties was irresistible to me I fell in love with the field and have been ever since.
What is an Ophthalmologist’s education?
An ophthalmologist also must attend a four year college or university and complete an undergraduate degree in whatever discipline he or she wants. There are quite few prerequisites such as biology, chemistry, organic chemistry, higher level math such as calculus, and others. This is why, for myself, I completed a bachelor’s degree in biology, so that I could both study what I loved and fulfill the prerequisites to be accepted into an accredited medical school.
Toward the end of an undergraduate degree, a prospective ophthalmologist must take the medical college admission test or MCAT. The application process is rigorous and includes an applicant’s extracurricular activities, curriculum, a transcript of courses and good grades, the interview process, and consideration of all these factors.
The goal of medical school is of course to become an MD or medical doctor. To make it a bit more confusing, there are also accredited colleges of Osteopathy, which award a DO degree or Doctor of Osteopathy degree. They too can become ophthalmologists. After medical school, the choices are still seemingly endless. One could become a neurosurgeon, an internist, work in public health, work in the military or on an Indian reservation. You could work abroad, for the CDC or the government in the FDA, for instance. There are also jobs in industry, etc.
When I was a medical student, once I discovered ophthalmology, there was no question what I wanted to do. The combination of physics, medicine, biology, optics, technology, and the broad scope of the multiple subspecialties was irresistible to me I fell in love with the field and have been ever since. Ophthalmology residency is the next step and is and has always been very competitive, as it’s an amazing specialty to be a part of. An ophthalmology residency is usually 4 years. There is one year of internship, which can be done in surgery, medicine, or what’s called a transitional year. Ophthalmology residency itself is 3 years after the internship year. In that three years, the young ophthalmologist is surrounded by extremely knowledgeable and experienced ophthalmologists, most frequently in an academic setting. The senior ophthalmologists help with the learning of the more junior ophthalmologists. It is a wonderful time of life. For me, I not only enjoyed every minute of the residency, the camaraderie, and the academic environment, but wrote posters and papers that helped me to further my understanding of medical research. As an ophthalmology resident, we run the outpatient clinic of the hospital which is most usually part of a teaching hospital but patients come from the community and may or may not have insurance. We always have an attending ophthalmologist, someone who has completed his or her training to review all the cases. We also rotate with each of the subspecialties of ophthalmology:
- Cataract subspecialist: performs cataract surgery to replace cloudy natural lenses.
- Cornea subspecialist
- Pediatric ophthalmology and strabismus (muscle imbalances)
- Orbit (tumors and disorders of the tissue around the eye). This may involve extraocular muscles, lids and tumors around the eye.
- Oculoplastic subspecialty: surgery of the eyelids and lacrimal apparatus
- Vitreoretinal surgery subspecialty: diagnosis and treatment of the retina and vitreous
- Uveitis: inflammation of the uvea (the choroid, ciliary body, and Iris). There are myriad causes of uveitis including infectious, immunologic, neoplastic (cancer).
- Glaucoma: Progressive optic and radius generally due to increased intraocular pressure
- Neuroophthalmology: diagnosis and treatment of neurologic conditions affecting the nervous system and the visual pathway.
- Refractive surgery: surgery for refractive errors (nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism) the various procedures of refractive surgery generally are: LASIK, PRK, ICL, RLE (Refractive lens exchange), SMILE, Cataract surgery. This is a rapidly evolving field and continues to make huge strides forward to help patients who are dependent on glasses and contact lenses to function.
Difference between Optometrist and Ophthalmologist
The difference between optometrist and ophthalmologist is mainly that an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or (to make it more confusing) a doctor of Osteopathy (DO) who is trained to be a medical doctor first, then does additional years of training to specialize in the diagnosis and medical and surgical treatment of the eyes and visual system. An optometrist has an important role to play in the examination of the eyes and visual system. He or she is licensed to treat the eye, but does not have the same level of training as an MD ophthalmologist, and works in partnership with the ophthalmologist to see that the patient gets the best possible care. Even within ophthalmology, I refer patients who have a problem that is outside of my subspecialty of refractive surgery to other Ophthalmologists. For example, if someone has a retina problem, I refer them to a retina specialist.
Ophthalmologist and optometrists often work together to coordinate the care of their patients. They may even work in the same office, as we do at SharpeVision MODERN LASIK, where we have five full-time optometrists on our team. It is a wonderful system where each practitioner can help the patient in a slightly different way or through a slightly different subspecialty. It is a small community, and I highly value my relationships with my colleagues through direct communication, co-management and societies such as the Refractive Surgery Alliance https://www.refractivealliance.com , American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) https://www.aao.org , and the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery (ASCRS) https://ascrs.org.
The fields of ophthalmology and optometry are different with regards to training and practice, but the goal is to help our patients have excellent vision throughout their lives. There is no sense that is more precious than sight. It’s our common goal to protect this however we can and to improve current diagnosis and treatment. It is extremely fulfilling as a career, and I am humbled and honored to be a part of this wonderful profession.