What is the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist?

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  • Written By: A.E. Freeman
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 11 July 2019
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Although an optometrist and an ophthalmologist both treat the eyes, there are several key differences between the two positions. The length of training varies between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist. The range and type of eye conditions they treat varies as well. An ophthalmologist is qualified to treat any condition of the eye, from vision problems to diseases, while an optometrist can diagnose some conditions and help treat vision problems.

The type of school an optometrist and an ophthalmologist attends differs. Both need to complete an undergraduate degree. An optometrist will then go on to study at a college of optometry and will earn a Doctor of Optometry, or OD, degree. The OD degree usually takes four years. In some cases, an optometrist will also complete a one-year residency after finishing the OD degree if he wants to become a specialist.

An ophthalmologist usually earns a Doctor of Medicine, or MD, degree from a medical school after her undergraduate degree is complete. She can also earn a Doctor of Osteopathy, or DO, degree. Most ophthalmologists in the United States complete a one-year internship before they officially become doctors.


After the internship, an ophthalmologist usually completes a residency, which provides further hands-on training in eye medicine and treatment. Most residencies last three years. Some doctors may choose to complete even more specialized training after their first residencies. Some ophthalmologists may choose to specialize in pediatric ophthalmology, plastic surgery, or in diseases such as glaucoma.

Both an optometrist and an ophthalmologist can examine a patient's eyes and issue a prescription for glasses or contact lenses. An optometrist and an ophthalmologist can also examine a patient's eyes and diagnose conditions such as macular degeneration, glaucoma, or conjunctivitis. While all ophthalmologists are able to treat those conditions, optometrists are only able to treat eye diseases in some parts of the United States.

Another difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist is that an ophthalmologist is able to perform surgery on a patient's eyes if need be. An ophthalmologist can perform surgery to repair crossed eyes or to fix damage caused by trauma to the eye. He may also be able to remove cataracts and tumors of the eye and perform plastic surgery to repair a drooping eyelid.

A patient should choose either an optometrist or an ophthalmologist based on her eye care needs. A patient who simply needs glasses should choose an optometrist, while a patient with a more serious eye problem should see an ophthalmologist. In some cases, an optometrist and an ophthalmologist may work in the same office and share patients so that a patient can easily switch between doctors as needed.



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