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Optometrist vs Ophthalmologist: What's the Difference?

Optometrist vs ophthalmologist in glasses store

Getting eye exams and regular check-ups might seem like a no-brainer. But, many Americans are skipping eye care. Reasons for this range from indifference to lack of health insurance coverage.

We don't have to tell you how important getting regular eye care is. All we have to do is remind you how much you rely on your eyesight in your everyday life. Driving, reading, witnessing your child's first steps, are all reasons to take care of your eyes.

But optometrist vs ophthalmologist: what’s the difference between the two? And which one should you see? The type of eye care provider you need will depend on many factors. Learn the important differences between the two before you make an appointment.


Optometrist using eye exam machine on patient

Let's start with optometrists. Optometrists specialize in prescribing glasses and contact lenses. They also work with those who have vision impairments.

Optometrists Must Obtain Certain Degrees

Optometrists are medical eye professionals. They are often referred to as eye doctors, though they differ from an ophthalmologist. An optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry (OD) only. To become an optometrist, they must have a bachelor's degree as well as a certificate/degree in optometry. Yet, they aren't required to, and don't, go to medical school. Many optometrists will train under other optometrists before practicing on their own.

Services Offered by Optometrists

The following are some of the common services that an optometrist can provide for you:

Optometrists can sometimes prescribe medications to treat certain eye conditions. This will depend on where the optometrist is located, as well as which training and schooling they've received.


Ophthalmologist examining senior woman’s eye with light

Now that you know what an optometrist does, let's look at the differences between an optometrist vs an ophthalmologist.

Ophthalmologists Must Obtain Certain Degrees Plus More!

Unlike an optometrist, an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD). They must earn a bachelor’s degree. They must also attend medical school and specialize in ophthalmology. After medical school, they must undergo further training for 3 to 8 years. An internship and a residency is also required. They can then further specialize in treating specific eye conditions and diseases if they so desire.

Services Offered

Ophthalmologists provide all the services that an optometrist can provide. Alongside those things, they can also:

We mentioned that optometrists can sometimes prescribe medications to treat eye conditions. Ophthalmologists are always able to prescribe medications and treatments. This is because they are medical doctors.

Optometrist vs Ophthalmologist: Which Should You See?

Now you know the differences between optometrists and ophthalmologists. But which should you see? Let's look at some examples.

If you simply need an eye exam or a normal check-up, you can see either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. Both will be able to provide you with an eye exam. If you need to adjust your glasses, check on your prescription, or change your contact lenses, either professional can treat you. But, if you’re on a budget, visiting an optometrist may be a better option since they tend to have lower prices than ophthalmologists. They can refer you to an ophthalmologist if needed.

When It Matters

If you need treatment for a medical condition such as an eye injury, see an ophthalmologist. Or if you need a treatment plan for a chronic eye disease, then you should also see an ophthalmologist. An ophthalmologist is professionally trained to diagnose and provide treatment for these issues. An optometrist would likely have to refer you to an ophthalmologist for those issues. An ophthalmologist would also prescribe a proper diagnosis or prescriptions for medication. But there's something to be said about that going to an optometrist first. If you go to an optometrist and they discover an issue that needs to be looked at by an ophthalmologist, they can refer you to one.

In the end, seeing an eye care professional is the important part. Once you're there, both an optometrist and an ophthalmologist will know what to do to get you the proper care you need.

When Should You See an Eye Doctor: Either an Optometrist or an Ophthalmologist?

Young woman getting eyes examined by eye doctor

Even if you have healthy eyes and no glaring issues, you should still be seeing an eye doctor. Regular check-ups are important. It's like seeing your primary care physician and your dentist. You do it often throughout your lifetime.

Adults ages 18 up to mid 60s should see an eye doctor every 2-5 years (at least). After 65, you should start seeing the eye doctor more often (every 1-2 years). Age is correlated with worsening vision and increased risk for eye disease/conditions. You need to go more often as you age. Children and teenagers should have their eyes checked every year. As a child grows, their vision could quickly change and they could need glasses. This is why they should have eye check-ups more often.

You may have special risks that need frequent visits. Diabetes or prior eye trauma are two examples. Frequent appointments will help catch problems early on. Your doctor will check your corrective lenses and track your condition.

Final Thoughts

Visiting an optometrist or an ophthalmologist should be a priority throughout your lifetime. So what's the answer to the optometrist vs. ophthalmologist debate?

If you need specific treatment, surgery, or help for an eye injury, make sure you see an ophthalmologist. For glasses, contact lenses, or vision impairment, visit your optometrist. Optometrists and ophthalmologists work together via referrals and joint treatment plans. This means that you can rest assured you’ll be pointed in the right direction no matter what type of eye doctor you see.

Although seeing a doctor is a great way to be proactive about your health, it’s just one way to take care of your eyes. Read our 6 expert-approved tips on how to protect your eyes on your own. With regular check-ups and our tips, you’ll be able to take care of your eyes in an optimal way.

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