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Most people know that optometrists and ophthalmologists work with vision and the eyes – but the average person often misses the differences between the two professions, or whom to see about a specific issue.

Here are some general guidelines on the relationship between ophthalmologists and optometrists.

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Level of Education for Ophthalmology

An ophthalmologist is either a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathy (DO). These degrees are gained after successfully completing an undergraduate degree and four years of medical school.

It is also common/required to complete a year internship, followed by three years of residency. Ophthalmologists usually elect to sit for boards to prove their specialty to colleagues, hospitals, and patients. By law, ophthalmology is considered a specialty of medicine and anyone with an MD or DO can claim it and train for it as their specialty.

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Education Requirements for Optometry

An optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry (OD). A bachelor’s degree is earned first, followed by another four years at a college of optometry. After successful completion, a graduate must sit for a state licensing exam in order to practice in a specific locale.

Rules vary by state, but most do not require any specialty training or internships beyond this point, although many optometrists participate in such programs to keep up on the latest treatments and technology.

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Treatment Focus in Ophthalmology

In general, an ophthalmologist deals with diseases of the eye and surgical correction. While they are indeed fully trained in refraction and can write a prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses, this is not usually their focus.

Ophthalmologists may specialize in a variety of areas, such as cornea or retinal disease, congenital defects, pediatrics or research. They may also perform surgeries to correct diseases, defects and refractive errors.

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The Focus of Optometry

In contrast with an ophthalmologist, an optometrist focuses on treatment of refractive errors and minor eye issues. Optometrists correct vision problems caused by normal variations in the eyes, such as nearsightedness, farsightedness, the need for reading glasses as one ages, and astigmatism.

Optometrists also look for signs of disease, such as high ocular pressure, problems with the optic nerve, and other abnormalities. An optometrist can treat sties, minor corneal abrasions, and pink eye as well. Some also treat glaucoma. Patients suspected of having a more serious eye disease or condition are referred to an ophthalmologist for further treatment.

Cooperative Efforts Between Professions

As with most medical fields, there are always exceptions in treatment. Ophthalmologists in rural areas and small towns, or comprehensive care centers, anywhere, may serve as both ophthalmologist and optometrist for the local population.

Optometrists, in the same situation may work with the nearest ophthalmologist by phone to treat a patient before the patient takes a trip an ophthalmologist.

In all areas, optometrists will reach out to their ophthalmologist colleagues if a situation is beyond their scope of treatment. The two professions work together to provide optimal care for any one patient.

Deciding where to visit for eye care can be a challenge – understanding the differences between these two professions can help you in your quest.

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