Should I See an Optometrist or Ophthalmologist?

Published April 5, 2020

Your eye care team

Ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians are the three main professionals included on the ‘eye care team’. While each profession plays an important role in providing eye care, it can sometimes be confusing to know which type of care you need. The main differences between each of the professions include the type of education they received, and the type of care they provide.

What is an optometrist?

Optometrists are healthcare professionals that provide primary vision care. 

An optometrist is also known accurately as an eye doctor and receives a doctor of optometry (OD) degree after completing two to four years of college-level education, followed by four years of optometry school. Most patients will see their optometrist first if they are experiencing a problem with their eyes or vision.

These eye doctors perform comprehensive eye exams and vision tests, detect and manage ocular and vision conditions, diagnose and prescribe medications for certain eye diseases and manage dry eye symptoms. Optometrists also provide eye care for both before and after eye surgery.

Optometrists also prescribe contact lenses and the full range of optical frames and lenses, including complex prescriptions for multifocals, hi-index and transition lenses.

Many optometrists complete years of post graduate training to manage more complex conditions that may require any of the following:

  • Vision therapy
  • Low vision care
  • Complex contact lenses
  • Neuro-optometry
  • Myopia management
  • Sports vision

Many optometrists also provide specific eye examinations for special needs children such as children with ADHD, autism, downs syndrome and even for children with traumatic brain injuries.

What is an ophthalmologist? 

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in eye diseases and surgery.

Ophthalmologists are required to complete 12 to 13 years of education. Typical training includes a four-year college degree followed by at least eight years of additional medical training (MD and DO). An ophthalmologist’s advanced training allows for diagnosis and treatment of all ocular diseases and conditions as well as surgical procedures such as cataract, retina and laser eye surgery. An ophthalmologist may also prescribe eyeglasses or contact lenses for correction of vision problems.

While ophthalmologists are trained to diagnose and treat all ocular and eye diseases, some ophthalmologists complete additional years of training, called a ‘Fellowship’, to become a sub-specialist.  Sub-specialists are able to take care of more complex conditions within certain areas of the eye or in certain groups of patients.

Many sub-specialties include pediatrics, neurology, cataract, laser refractive surgery, glaucoma, retina, cornea, oculo-plastic surgery, oncology and more.

What is an optician?

Opticians are trained to design and fit eyeglass lenses according to the prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists or optometrists— they do not perform vision tests. Opticians also fit eyeglass frames, contact lenses and other eyewear used to correct eyesight.

Which eye doctor should you see?

As optometrists are primary eye care practitioners, most people would see their optometrist first.

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists conduct routine comprehensive eye exams and are trained to detect, diagnose and manage ocular diseases. Optometrists prescribe treatment for common eye conditions, such as glaucoma, dry eyes, eye infections etc, and a wide range of vision conditions, such as lazy eye and reading and learning difficulties.

Many optometrists can also provide visual rehabilitation following brain injuries, specific care for vision problems that contribute to learning difficulties, myopia control, and more.

Optometrists and general practitioners can refer to ophthalmologists for treatment of certain eye diseases that typically require surgery, or if the condition requires complex medical intervention.