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Eye specialists: Optometrists and ophthalmologists

There are two main types of eye specialist, and the difference between optometrist and ophthalmologist is more than just their different spellings. It's not surprising that many people aren't sure which is which. Read on to find out what each of these eye health professionals does and the differences between them.

Ophthalmologist: Total eye care

Ophthalmologists are doctors of medicine. These doctors complete the required six years of the medical school course plus pre-registration training.

After they become registered doctors they undergo specialist hospital training. This consists of medical and surgical speciality training specifically in eye care.

Ophthalmologists provide complete eye care services. These include:

  • Vision services, including eye examinations
  • Medical eye care -- for glaucoma, iritis, chemical burns, orbital cellulitis, etc.
  • Surgical eye care -- for trauma, amblyopia, cataracts, glaucoma, tumours, etc.
  • Diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions related to other diseases, like diabetes and diabetic retinopathy, arthritis and iritis or brain conditions such as multiple sclerosis and optic neuritis
  • Eye disease and injury preventive services
  • Plastic surgery -- some ophthalmologists offer this service for drooping eyelids or skin tumours around the eyes.

Optometrist: Vision care and eye care services

Optometrists are trained to diagnose and treat vision conditions like short-sightedness, long-sightedness and astigmatism. They are trained in prescribing eyeglasses, contact lenses, eye exercises, low vision aids and vision therapy.

They are also trained to identify cataracts, glaucoma and retinal disease, and some are able to use or supply medications to treat eye disease.

Optometrists usually attend a three or four year undergraduate honours degree course before starting a year-long pre-registration period.

Some complete a postgraduate one-year clinical residency to gain specialist certification.

The services optometrists provide include:

  • Vision services such as eye examinations and treatment of conditions such as amblyopia and strabismus
  • Diagnosing eye conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and conjunctivitis
  • Prescribing medications for certain eye conditions
  • Eye disease and injury-prevention services
  • Prescribing and fitting glasses and contact lenses

Optometrists may also take part in pre- and postoperative care for patients having eye surgery.

Optometrists and ophthalmologists sometimes work in the same clinic and co-manage patients.

So ... what's an optician?

Opticians (also called dispensing opticians) assist patients in an important way: they fill the lens prescriptions that ophthalmologists and optometrists recommend.

Opticians:

  • Evaluate lens prescriptions written by ophthalmologists and optometrists
  • Dispense, adjust, repair and replace glasses, frames and contact lenses
  • Take facial measurements
  • Help decide which form of lens best fits a patient's needs
  • Take charge of ordering and checking eye-related products, including contact and lenses for glasses.

Opticians follow a three-year course at a university. They can follow that with courses in specialities, such as contact lens paediatric eyecare. They are not trained to perform eye examinations.

Choosing an eye doctor

When choosing an eye specialist, consider these four things

  • Qualifications: Both ophthalmologists and optometrists must have degrees from accredited medical or optometry faculties and be registered with their governing body.
  • Services offered: Make sure the eye specialist provides not only a wide range of eye care services, but the service(s) you need.
  • Professional experience: Seeing a large number of patients over time could mean a doctor has greater ability to detect and diagnose eye disorders. Ask about research activities, too. Researchers are often more knowledgeable about the newest eye care methods.
  • Other patients' degree of satisfaction: Ask family members, friends and/or colleagues about the eye specialists they've seen. How satisfied are they with their eye care? This is a strong indicator of how satisfied you will be. When you visit an eye specialist, take note of how you're treated. Ask yourself whether you feel comfortable and confident with your choice. If not, keep looking.

A final word: If you're thinking of having laser eye surgery such as LASIK, don't let discount-price advertising be your guide. Your eye health depends on getting the best care -- not the best price.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on October 04, 2012

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