Education

Seeing an Ophthalmologist, Optometrist or Optician

There comes a point in your life – hopefully further into your years of wisdom – when your eyesight starts to diminish, and you decide it’s time to seek the care of an eye doctor.

And while you’re wise enough to know your eyes no longer function as they once did, if you’re like most people, you undoubtedly realize you have no idea whether you need to see an ophthalmologist, an optometrist or an optician for your eye exam.

“This is a question that we are asked frequently,” said Albert Caruana, M.D., an ophthalmologist with Baptist Eye Surgery Center in Sunrise. “Most patients are not sure what the difference between these specialists is.”

Dr. Caruana says the differences boil down to training and specialization.

Ophthalmologists

Ophthalmologists, like Dr. Caruana, are medical doctors. They have four-year college degrees and attend medical school for at least four additional years, followed by one year of internship, three years of post-graduate residency and optional fellowship training after that.

Dr. Caruana notes that ophthalmologists manage complex diseases of the eye using medicine or surgery, including conventional or laser techniques. They also perform regular eye exams and prescribe glasses and contact lenses.

Dr. Caruana, who specializes in cataract surgery, says that many ophthalmologists may also take on a subspecialty with additional fellowship training. Retinal specialists, for example, treat macular degeneration.

Optometrists

Optometrists are also referred to as doctors, Dr. Caruana explains, but earn a “Doctor of Optometry” degree at the conclusion of their four-year optometry training, which they get after obtaining a four-year college degree.

Optometrists, like ophthalmologists, perform eye exams to assess vision and prescribe glasses and contact lenses. They also prescribe medications to treat basic diseases of the eye, like conjunctivitis (pink eye) and dry eye.

“Optometrists are a critical part of the eye care team,” Dr. Caruana said. “They often see patients first and diagnose diseases of the eye that are referred to ophthalmologists for further care. And following a surgical procedure, patients reach a point when ophthalmologists refer them to an optometrist to help them achieve their best level of eyesight with glasses or contact lenses.”

Opticians

When you are prescribed glasses or contact lenses by either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist, you will likely encounter an optician – a person trained in making, dispensing and fitting corrective eyewear. These specialists are not doctors.

“Opticians do not diagnose or treat conditions of the eye,” Dr. Caruana said, “but they’re also valuable to the eye care team to ensure that patients can see properly with their glasses or contacts.”

Seeking the Proper Specialist

For routine eye exams and common conditions of the eye, Dr. Caruana says it’s up to the patient whether to seek care from an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. He does recommend, though, that children under 5 should have a baseline eye exam by a pediatric ophthalmologist.

“If you’re under the age of 50 and your vision has gotten progressively worse over time,” he said, “you can see either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist for an eye exam.” But, he warns, that any changes in vision over a period of less than six months should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist.

“Rapid changes in vision are less common and likely indicate a problem,” he said. “Cataracts, for example, can blur vision in a short period of time.”

Yearly Eye Exams

While yearly eye exams aren’t necessary for most people younger than 50, Dr. Caruana recommends them for children, teenagers and young adults with glasses or contact lenses, because their vision does tend to change more rapidly and adjustments to those prescriptions should be made regularly for optimal eyesight.

“Most eye disease come after the age of 50,” he said. “That is when we begin to recommend annual exams.”

He notes, though, that for any age group, blurred vision, squinting or headaches indicate a need for an eye exam. He also explains that if an optometrist discovers a cataract, glaucoma or another more complex eye disease, he or she will refer patients to an ophthalmologist for further evaluation and treatment.

Now that we know the difference between an ophthalmologist, an optometrist and an optician, as well as when we should see them, we can wonder anew where that extra “H” in ophthalmology came from.

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