The choice of an eye doctor is an important decision as you trust your eye doctor to help you maintain a lifetime of good vision and safeguard your precious sense of sight. Therefore, the first step in doing so is to understand that there are two types of eye doctors that you can see. They are optometrists and ophthalmologists.
Though they are not medical doctors per say, those in the field of optometry must complete a four-year college degree program in the sciences. In addition in order to go into practice, they must also have four years of post-graduate professional training in optometry school. In this regard, the educational requirements of an optometrist are similar to those of a dentist.
Once the requirements are fulfilled, they earn a Doctor of Optometry degree and are then able to examine eyes for both vision and health problems. They can also correct refractive errors by prescribing glasses and contact lenses. Some optometrists also provide low vision care and vision therapy. In the United States, optometrists also are licensed to prescribe medications to treat certain eye problems and diseases and the scope of medical care that they can provide is determined by individual state law.
With a few exceptions, optometrists in the U.S. are not trained or licensed to perform eye surgery. However, they can participate in your pre- and post-operative care if you have eye surgery performed by an ophthalmologist.
On the other hand, an ophthalmologist can be either a medical doctor (MD) or an osteopathic doctor (DO) who specializes in eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists are trained to perform eye exams, diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medications and perform eye surgery. They can also write prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses. Ophthalmologists must complete four years of college and then attend four years of medical school. In order to be licensed, he or she must also complete one year of an internship and a minimum of three years of hospital-based residency in ophthalmology.
So, if an optometrist is like a dentist, then an ophthalmologist is like an oral surgeon. However, both are required to fulfill continuing education requirements on an ongoing basis in order to maintain their licensure and stay current with the latest standards of eye care.
Therefore, if your eyes are healthy and you do not need specialized medical or surgical treatment, then the type of eye doctor you choose for a routine eye exam is a matter of personal preference as optometrists and ophthalmologists both perform routine eye exams and both types of eye doctors are trained to detect, diagnose and manage eye diseases that require medical and non-medical treatment.
In fact, it may be best to choose both. You can have an optometrist as your primary eye doctor, and an ophthalmologist as your specialist for a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan. The ophthalmologist can manage the problem medically and perform eye surgery, or both. Then, after the condition is treated or controlled, the specialist will then send you back to your primary care eye doctor, who will continue to monitor and treat your condition and perform post-operative care based on the specialist’s recommendations.