August is National Eye Exam Month and Cataracts Awareness Month. It’s a great reminder to take a moment to schedule an appointment for an important regular eye exam.
But who should you see? In the realm of eye health, there are two primary types of medical professionals: optometrists and ophthalmologists. Each are highly trained specialists with their own benefits. Because they sound so similar, it can be confusing to understand who does what.
There are more than 36,000 optometrists in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Optometrists perform eye exams, treat conditions like nearsightedness, farsightedness, and astigmatism, prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses, and diagnose eye conditions like cataracts, glaucoma and retinopathy. In most states, optometrists can prescribe medicine for certain eye conditions.
In addition to undergraduate study, optometrists complete four years of postgraduate study to receive a Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree. While this degree does not make an optometrist a medical doctor, optometrists must pass nationally administered exams to gain licensing and adhere to strict standards—just like a medical doctor—to remain in practice. For many patients, an optometrist may be the only eye care professional they ever need to see. For others, optometrists may be the first to notice a critical issue requiring the care of an ophthalmologist.
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the treatment of the eye. While they can perform routine eye exams, they are highly trained and specialized in more complex eye health issues. This includes surgery on the eye, LASIK vision correction, removal of cataracts, or surgery related to eye trauma or burns. They can prescribe medications to treat eye conditions. Currently, there are more than 23,000 ophthalmologists practicing in the United States, according to the American Medical Association.
After completing undergraduate study, an ophthalmologist goes on to medical school like any physician. After becoming licensed physicians, a doctor must complete three or more years of special residency to become an ophthalmologist.
Optometrists and ophthalmologists work together to provide care for patients. In many cases, an optometrist will perform routine exams and prescribe eyeglasses and contacts while referring patients whose eye exams turn up issues to the ophthalmologist who can then provide specialized care. An optometrist may assist an ophthalmologist with pre- or post-operative eye care for those who need surgery. If you’re looking for a place to start and just need a routine exam, it’s often best to start with an optometrist, who will let you know if you need to see an ophthalmologist.