Ophthalmologist vs Optometrist

One of the most common mistakes many patients make is to consider an optometrist and ophthalmologist as the same position, however there is a huge difference between the two. Optometrists are usually the primary health provider for normal vision problems and yearly checkups. The position requires a Doctor of Optometry degree and a license, and allows the diagnosing for common vision acuity problems like farsightedness and nearsightedness, prescribing corrective eyeglasses, contact lenses, dispensing and prescription of certain medication, plus testing for eye diseases and conditions. Optometrists can handle all this, usually in their own office or for a firm.

Ophthalmologists can perform the same functions as optometrists, but are considered a higher position as they actually are medical doctors with Doctors of Medicine or Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine degrees who specialize in the eyes and vision care. This means an ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat highly complicated eyes issues, can perform surgeries like Lasik and repair retinal damage, and can handle more area specific cases in vision care. The main difference between the two eye-related careers is that an ophthalmologist can handle surgeries and other issues that require more training on the medical side.

The Line of Treatment

There have been debates in several places over how much more optometrists can handle in their role as the primary eye care provider. Some states already allow optometrists to treat conditions such as glaucoma, as long as they attain a license or certificate to do so, and many other services. The use of many diagnostic drugs and prescriptions of therapeutic medications is already accessible to optometrists in several states, but there is generally a list of exactly what can be used and prescribed. Some optometrists may also do minor surgical procedures like removing a foreign object from the eye. For any case that is out of their range of knowledge, or where they feel the patient will be better served by another professional, an optometrist will recommend the patient to an ophthalmologist.

Ophthalmologists can handle cases when it comes to the eyes, but some will have more expertise in certain areas such as pediatrics, retina, corneal, surgical procedures, and many other subspecialties. Most ophthalmologists can handle routine cases regarding vision care, but for more extreme or rare situations, patients are usually transferred to a specialist in that specific area.

Difference in Education and Training

There is major difference in education and training for optometrists and ophthalmologists, but both require post-graduate education at schools that are very competitive to get accepted into, with rigorous requirements.

The road to becoming an optometrist starts with a bachelor’s degree, the OAT, and acceptance into one of the few optometry schools. Optometry schools require 4 years of didactic coursework and clinical training, with the last year usually packed with rotations through clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities. After graduating, optometrists can obtain a license and start working, or they can continue training through a residency program which generally is one year in length. The residency offers extra hands on training in specific areas such as glaucoma. Click for more information on optometric residency.

For ophthalmologists, the road begins with a bachelor’s degree, the MCATS, and acceptance to one of the more than one hundred medical schools. Medical schools include 4 years of classes, clinical assignments, and other training methods in all aspects relating to medicine and health. Unlike optometry schools that focus on the eyes and vision, medical schools encompass care for the entire body. After medical school, the graduate must complete a required first year clinical residency program, or PGY-1. After this is completed, the graduate must then complete a 3 year residency based on ophthalmology, and those who want to specialize even more will continue training through fellowships in specific areas for another 1 to 3 years. This means at least 8 years of post graduate education and training is needed to become an ophthalmologist, and even more to become more specialized in specific areas like pediatric ophthalmology.

Difference in Pay

It is to be expected that ophthalmologists will make more than optometrists because of the extra training and expertise in different areas. According to the BLS, the median salary for optometrists in 2008 was $105,200, and according to the Medical Group Management Association, the median salary for ophthalmologists in 2006 was $297,486. By these numbers, ophthalmologists can almost make 3 times as much as optometrists, but it can vary depending on situations like running a private office, working as a specialist, and other factors.


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