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Common EyeCare Questions: What’s the Difference Between all those ‘O’ Words?

August 24, 2015

For those outside of the field of vision care, it can be confusing to differentiate between the job descriptions of an optometrist vs. an ophthalmologist.  Throw in the third category of “opticians,” and it’s enough to make one want to put off that eye exam or LASIK consultation for another week or month or year.   

The good news is that this blog post will clarify the differences, and next time there’s a lull at a cocktail party, you can tell your friends and take full credit.  The important thing to remember, however, is that these titles are not strictly exclusive of one another.  In fact, the three roles have considerable overlap and points of intersection.  
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll begin by describing them one at a time, starting with optometrists.  An optometrist, or an O.D. or Doctor of Optometry, has been trained to identify and treat issues like farsightedness, nearsightedness, and astigmatism.  He or she is also capable of sizing and prescribing contact lenses and prescription lenses.  Their most well known duty is probably the “refractions,” or vision correction exams, that they regularly carry out.  

Becoming an optometrist requires four years of undergraduate study with a pre-med oriented curriculum followed by four years of post-graduate doctoral work.  Subjects of study include pharmacology, ocular disease diagnosis and treatment, vision therapy, optics, anatomy and physiology, and long hours of clinical shadowing and practice.  After their extensive education, they are required to take and pass a round of arduous nationally administered tests to receive their formal license.  For those interested in further specialization, another one-year graduate residency is usually in order.  Though optometrists may not call on the depths of their training with their daily roster of patients, they are equipped to recognize and respond to extreme cases when they surface.  

As time and technology evolve, the training optometrists receive is becoming even more rigorous.  Their focus and attention now extends beyond optics and refractions to the knowledge and treatment of diseases that either directly or indirectly compromise the strength and health of the eyes.

Despite the fact that optometrists are not M.D.s, they can still prescribe medication for a range of conditions, including glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, retinal disease, and other ocular disorders linked to diabetes and high blood pressure.  Interestingly enough, it is often an optometrist who is the first to pick up on indicators of illnesses such as diabetes in the process of administering a standard eye exam.  

Still not sure what kind of eye issue warrants an optometrist?  You can call on an optometrist for basic eye exams, strabismus, amblyopia (lazy eye), all the earlier mentioned conditions, and for more recent graduates – pre and post operative care for LASIK and cataract patients patients.

Ophthalmologists, in contrast, are either medical doctors (MD) or osteopathic doctors (OD) who possess an expertise, or specialization, in eye care.  Though there can be variation in training, they all complete four years of college, four years of med school, a year of internship, and finally three years in an ophthalmology residency within a hospital.  They are equipped to handle a host of eye conditions, prescribe medication, and execute surgical procedures like LASIK or cataract surgery.  

Finally, we come to opticians.  Opticians are best thought of as technicians.  They are skilled in matching a prescription written by an optometrist or ophthalmologist to the ideal lenses and frames.  Their training consists of a one to two year certification, or degree.  Their job doesn’t include diagnosing eye conditions or providing treatment options.

Optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians all provide a valuable service in tending to the sometimes-fragile gift of eyesight.   Furthermore, they often work together.  While an optometrist may diagnose a condition like glaucoma, he is likely to then refer the patient to meet with an ophthalmologist for further consultation.  While an ophthalmologist may be capable of administering routine eye exams, he may work with an optometrist so that he can focus his attention on surgeries.  As he attends to surgeries, he may then refer patients back to the optometrist for post-operative care.  

Have more questions about eye care terms? Don’t be afraid to ask.  The one thing all these “O” words have in common is that they’re here to help!

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