The difference between optometry and ophthalmology can be confusing. Both eye care providers prescribe glasses and contacts, as well as treat and manage eye disease. The main difference lies in which can perform invasive eye procedures such as cataract surgery.
Optometrists (OD) are not medical doctors (MD). This does not mean that Optometrists are not doctors. Optometrists are doctors similar to a dentist or pharmacist. In order to become an OD, one must first receive a bachelor’s degree complete with the necessary prerequisites to apply to optometry school. Optometry school involves three intensive years of study devoted to eye health and function, and a year of clinical training under direct supervision. Optometrists then are able to continue further for an additional year of residency training in a desired specialty.
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Ophthalmologists are medical doctors. This means that they first complete a bachelor’s degree, followed by four years of medical school. At this point they are considered medical doctors; however, ophthalmology is a specialty that also requires several years (usually four to five) of specialized residency training in eye health, function, and surgery. Whereas one can achieve the role of OD in eight years, most ophthalmologists will not begin practicing independently until receiving twelve to thirteen years of formal education.
Historically, optometry was regarded as a profession confined to the prescription of glasses and contact lenses, leaving disease management to ophthalmology. This has steadily been changing for decades, as the burden of eye disease continues to overwhelm ophthalmology. In the 1970’s, optometrists were granted the use of drops to dilate patients and begin managing eye disease. Since then, the school curriculum has followed. Now, a significant portion of an optometrists training is focused on the management of complex eye diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration.
The largest distinction between optometry and ophthalmology is surgery. Although optometry is advancing to include minor eye procedures, surgery in its traditional sense is exclusively managed by ophthalmology. Common surgeries performed by ophthalmologists include LASIK and cataract surgery. Just as optometrists specialize in certain areas, as do ophthalmologists. In fact, there is an ophthalmological specialty for nearly every component of the eye, from the cornea to the retina. Ophthalmologists are also better equipped to handle systemic diseases that manifest themselves in the eyes, such as certain autoimmune conditions, severe metabolic dysfunction, and widespread infection.
This comparison begs the question, which is better for me? I often frame the answer as, it depends on your personal needs. For the vast majority of the population, seeing an optometrist for routine eye care is all that is necessary. However, if one suffers from one or more eye conditions, or have certain systemic conditions that increase the risk of eye disease, it makes sense that they are also co-managed by ophthalmology. As the amount of eye disease continues to grow in our aging population, optometrists and ophthalmologists are working together now more than ever. Many ophthalmology offices also have optometry on staff to work with patients during pre and postoperative periods, as well as help manage less severe cases of common eye diseases. As with any doctor you trust with your vision, it is important to feel confident and secure in the care you are receiving. For more information, see the links below.