When a person makes an appointment with an ophthalmologist, they may see an ophthalmologist, optometrist, or optician. Each type of eye care professional will have different levels of training and expertise and will be able to provide different services.
There are three types of eye care professionals: optometrists, opticians and ophthalmologists.
Each has a different level of training and expertise, and each will provide different levels of care.
This article reviews the differences between the types of eye care professionals. It also discusses the roles of other eyecare professionals, including nurses, physician assistants and technicians.
Optometrists provide primary eye care. Their services range from vision testing and correction to diagnosing, treating, and managing vision changes.
A person who is training to become an optometrist will attend optometry school, not medical school. It takes 4 years of higher education to obtain a doctorate in optometry.
The practice of optometry involves:
- perform eye exams
- perform vision tests
- prescribe and dispense corrective lenses
- detect certain ocular irregularities
- prescribe medication for certain eye conditions
- perform specialized surgeries
- offer visual rehabilitation
In the United States, each state board of optometry defines the drugs or services an optometrist can provide.
Optometrists in some states can prescribe Schedule II drugs, which include opioids:
Five states allow optometrists to perform a procedure called foreign body removal. Optometrists in the following states are also licensed to perform laser eye surgeries:
To find out what an optometrist can do in a particular state or country, a person can consult the relevant regional boards of optometry.
Sometimes an optometrist is more easily accessible than an ophthalmologist. It’s worth knowing if an optometrist can perform a test or procedure before calling an eye doctor.
An optician is a technician trained to design and fit the following visual aids:
- eyeglass lenses and frames
- contact lenses
- other devices to correct a person’s sight
Opticians use prescriptions from an optometrist or ophthalmologist to check and adjust required visual aids. They don’t have the training to diagnose vision problems and they can’t treat eye conditions.
To become an ophthalmologist, a person must go to medical school. Ophthalmologists will have at least 8 years of medical training. Once they become ophthalmologists, they are licensed to practice medicine and surgery.
An ophthalmologist can provide the same medical services as an optometrist, including prescribing and fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems. However, ophthalmologists can also:
- diagnose and treat all eye conditions
- perform eye surgeries
- conduct scientific research into the causes and cures of eye conditions and vision problems
Sometimes ophthalmologists can also detect health problems that are not directly related to the eye but become apparent during a routine eye exam. If this happens, the ophthalmologist will recommend that the person see their family doctor.
Ophthalmologists are specialist doctors, but some ophthalmologists may choose a sub-specialty. This involves continuing their education and training in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care.
Some subspecialties of ophthalmology include:
The cornea is the transparent, protective outer layer of the eye. It acts like a lens to focus light entering the eyeball.
A corneal specialist can diagnose and treat corneal eye conditions such as Fuchs dystrophy and keratoconus. They can also perform surgeries such as refractive surgery and corneal transplant.
People who have corneal trauma or complicated contact lens fittings can also see a corneal specialist.
The retina is the thin layer of tissue that lines the inner part of the back of the eyeball. Its role is to receive light and send visual signals to the brain.
A retinal specialist can diagnose and treat retinal eye conditions. This may involve the surgical repair of torn or detached retinas.
Retina specialists can also treat conditions in the vitreous, which is the gel-like substance in the eyeball.
Glaucoma specialists treat glaucoma, an eye condition. This causes fluid to build up in the eye. Excess fluid puts pressure on the eye, causing damage to the optic nerve.
Ophthalmologists who specialize in neurology are called neuro-ophthalmologists. This subspecialty deals with vision problems related to how the eye communicates with the brain, nerves and muscles.
Some conditions neuro-ophthalmologists can diagnose and treat include:
A pediatric ophthalmologist treats infants and children with childhood eye conditions and other eye problems.
Some eye problems that a pediatric specialist can treat include:
- eye misalignment
- uncorrected refractive errors
- differences in vision between the two eyes
Plastic surgeons who specialize in ophthalmology can repair damage to the eyelids, bones, or other structures around the eyes and the tear drainage system. They may also administer injections to improve the appearance and function of facial structures around the eye.
Ophthalmologists sometimes need additional help from nurses, medical assistants, and technicians. The following sections provide more details about these professionals.
Registered Ophthalmology Nurses have additional training in eye care. These nurses can inject drugs and participate in surgeries in the office or in the hospital.
Some nurses with specialized training in ophthalmology are clinic or hospital administrators.
Ophthalmic physician assistants can perform a variety of tests to assist an eye doctor during an exam or procedure.
Ophthalmology technicians or technologists are highly trained assistants who can assist an ophthalmologist with more complex tests and operations.
An ophthalmic photographer, for example, uses cameras and photographic techniques to document the condition of a person’s eyes.
Opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists are the three most common eye care professionals. Nurses, physician assistants, and technicians may also specialize in eye care.
Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat all eye conditions. Some ophthalmologists continue their training to specialize in a particular eye condition or part of the eye.
Optometrists may offer different services depending on the country or state in which they work. Some optometrists can perform certain laser eye procedures, while others can only perform foreign body removal.
Opticians can design and install visual aids prescribed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist.
A person should see an appropriate eye care professional to get the care they need for their specific eye or vision problem.