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The Three O's of Eyecare

“So what’s the difference between an Optometrist, an Ophthalmologist and an Optician?”

Every so often I get asked this question. Sometimes I’m convinced even my own family doesn’t really know the answer. So I thought I would kick off our new blog by talking about the similarities and differences between the three.

An Ophthalmologist (MD or DO) is a medical or osteopathic doctor who receives residency training and specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease. In general, ophthalmologists use medical and surgical methods to treat eye diseases and vision disorders. They attend a traditional allopathic or osteopathic medical school to receive their doctorate and are licensed under the Board of Healing Arts.

Doctors of Optometry (OD) are the independent primary health care professionals for the eye. Optometrists examine, diagnose, treat and manage diseases, injuries, and disorders of the visual system, the eye, and associated structures as well as identify related systemic conditions affecting the eye. An optometrist completes a pre-professional undergraduate education at a college or university (usually a bachelor’s degree) and then completes four years of professional education at a college of optometry. Upon graduating, some optometrists complete an optional residency for additional training in a specific area of practice related to the eye.

Doctors of Optometry prescribe medications, spectacle lenses, and contact lenses. They can perform certain minor surgical procedures. Optometrists counsel their patients regarding surgical and non-surgical options that meet their visual needs related to their occupations, avocations, and lifestyle. They are eye health care professionals state-licensed to diagnose and treat diseases and disorders of the eye and visual system.

Opticians are technicians trained to design, verify and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses, and other devices to correct eyesight. They use prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists or optometrists, but do not test vision or write prescriptions for visual correction. Opticians are not permitted to diagnose or treat eye diseases. Depending on the state, opticians are not required to go through formal educational training or hold any state certification.

Generally speaking, think of optometrists as the primary care doctors of the eye. So if you need an eye exam for glasses, fitting for contact lenses, or you have an acute eye infection or chronic eye disease needing treatment, go see your neighborhood optometrist.

Ophthalmologists are the surgeons of the eye. So if you are needing cataract surgery, LASIK, corneal transplants, retina surgery, or other surgical interventions of the eye, your optometrist will refer you to a trusted ophthalmology partner to co-manage with.

Opticians can be independent and own their own glasses stores to fit and dispense frames and lenses, or they can be employed by optometrists or ophthalmologists to do the same. But they do not write prescriptions for vision correction or medications as they do not perform eye exams.

As you may have already figured out, there is certainly overlap in the types of services that the “three O’s” provide to patients. For instance, some ophthalmologists do perform general eye exams and provide glasses and contact lens prescriptions, as well as write medication prescriptions to treat diseases of the eye. However, most ophthalmology clinics use technicians to perform the refractions for glasses and for fitting contact lenses, whereas at an optometry office, it is usually the doctor performing those refractions and fitting the contact lenses. Like independent opticians, optometrists (and some ophthalmologists) also sell glasses and contact lenses as well. Some optometrists are employed by ophthalmologists or even opticians, and in most cases, opticians are employed by optometrists or in ophthalmology practices. Optometrists and ophthalmologists often refer patients to each other for areas of practice that they may not perform themselves, and they co-manage many diseases together.

So the moral of the story is that the “Three O’s” work together in synergy and partnership to deliver the entire spectrum of eye health and vision care to the public. Optometry is the gateway to both vision correction options as well as surgical options for our patients. Optometrists can help guide you and discuss the options that will best correct your vision issues or treat your eye conditions, and co-manage surgical treatments with ophthalmology where appropriate.

If you are having a vision issue, or a chronic eye health issue, I encourage you to call your local optometrist and schedule an appointment for an evaluation.