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What is the difference between an optometrist, ophthalmologist and optician

Ophthalmologist performing surgery

The World Health Organization estimates that 2.2 billion people worldwide have a visual impairment. Notably, it also estimates that one billion of these people have a visual impairment that could have been prevented or is yet to be treated.1

Eye examinations are the first step in taking care of your eye health and preventing serious complications. How do you know which eye care provider is right for your needs?

Follow along to find out what duties optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians perform, what services they provide, and learn which provider is right for you.

What is an optometrist?

Optometrist examining woman's eyes

Optometrists are primary vision care providers who typically examine eyes and test vision. They can detect irregularities such as near or farsightedness, dry eye syndrome, colour vision deficiency (colour blindness), and more.

If you wear prescription glasses or contact lenses, you can schedule routine checkups with an optometrist and they will monitor your eyes and adjust prescriptions if necessary.

Optometrist education level and training

Optometrists are required to obtain a degree in optometry. A course takes approximately four years to complete depending on the university and structure of the programme. The final year is dedicated to clinical training (residency) under the supervision of a licensed optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Continual professional development is required as an optometrist to keep up with the latest research and technologies. Many optometrists also further their education in order to specialise in specific areas of practice.

Key roles of an optometrist

  • Perform eye exams and vision tests; write prescriptions for corrective lenses and eyewear
  • Offer clinical advice about eye health and vision correction
  • Diagnose eye abnormalities such as myopia, astigmatism, and glaucoma

What is an ophthalmologist?

Ophthalmologist performing surgery on patient

Ophthalmologists are eye care specialists with in-depth training, education, and knowledge about vision and comprehensive eye care. They are doctors of medicine (MD) or doctors of osteopathy (DO) licensed to diagnose and treat eye diseases, perform surgeries such as LASIK or refractive eye surgery, treat physical eye trauma, and beyond.

Ophthalmologist education level and training

In the U.K., ophthalmologists must obtain a medical degree (MD or OD designation) which takes a minimum of five years to complete. In addition to coursework, two years of residency with hands-on medical training is required.

Further specialisation requires extra training and education. Accelerated postgraduate degrees in ophthalmology are also available to those who have already completed an undergraduate degree unrelated to ophthalmology.

Key roles of an ophthalmologist

  • Perform eye exams and vision tests; write prescriptions for corrective lenses and eyewear
  • Diagnose, treat, and manage medical conditions related to the eyes such as diabetes or eye cancer
  • Perform surgery for eye diseases such as glaucoma, cataracts, diabetes-related retinopathy, and more

What is an optician?

Optician fitting glasses on man

Opticians are skilled technicians trained to fit and dispense glasses and contact lenses. They can also fit and dispense other vision aids such as magnifying glasses.

Unlike optometrists and ophthalmologists, opticians aren’t qualified to perform eye examinations, diagnose diseases, or write prescriptions.

Optician education level and training

Opticians become certified by undergoing a one to two year certification course. After the course, it’s generally required to work under the supervision of a licensed optometrist for a year before taking and passing a final professional qualification exam.

Key roles of an optician and training

  • Fit and dispense prescription glasses and contacts lenses using a prescription written by an ophthalmologist or optometrist
  • Give advice about wearing and caring for glasses and lenses
  • Adjust and repair glasses frames and lenses

What is the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist?

The terms optometrist and ophthalmologist are often used interchangeably, however, they are different professions.

Optometrists offer routine eye care such as eye examinations and vision tests. Ophthalmologists can provide all the services an optometrist provides. Additionally, ophthalmologists are licensed to practise medicine and perform surgery.

Take a look at the handy table below to see the duties optometrists, ophthalmologists and opticians perform at a glance:

Duties Optometrist Ophthalmologist Optician
Write glasses and lens prescriptions Yes Yes No
Fit and dispense glasses and lenses Yes Yes Yes
Diagnose eye diseases No* Yes No
Perform eye surgery No Yes No

*Although they cannot diagnose medical conditions such as diabetes, optometrists can detect vision and eye-related symptoms caused by certain diseases. They may refer you to an ophthalmologist or general practitioner if they suspect further diagnosis is needed.

Should I see an optometrist, ophthalmologist or optician?

If you're still trying to decide which eye care professional to visit, see the basic summary of what services each offer below:

See an optometrist

  • For routine eye exams
  • To receive glasses and contact lens prescriptions
  • If you need some eye medications such as eye drops

See an ophthalmologist

  • To receive glasses and contact lens prescriptions
  • If you need eye surgery
  • For treatment of serious eye conditions such as cataracts or macular degeneration

See an optician

  • To fill optical prescriptions
  • To fit or adjust glasses
  • For glasses or other visual aid recommendations

Closing thoughts from Lentiamo

When vision is diminished or impaired, it can be difficult or impossible to perform everyday tasks such as driving or reading. Scheduling regular checkups with an eye care provider can lead to the timely detection and even prevention of serious eye problems.

You can make an informed decision about your eye care. Consider what your needs are and choose a provider who makes you feel comfortable and heard. Whether you have specific eye concerns or not, it's always a good idea to get your eyes checked.

1World Health Organization