We know that regular eye exams are an important part of our healthcare, regardless of our age or physical health. Serious eye problems can develop, without our even being aware of it. That is why routine eye exams are so important, because they may detect eye disorders or other medical problems early, when they are most treatable. But selecting an eye doctor may be confusing, unless you understand the difference between an optometrist (OD) and an ophthalmologist (MD).

What is an Optometrist?

An optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry, an OD, who is trained to perform routine checkups and general eye examinations for the detection and non-surgical treatment and management of certain limited eye diseases. Optometrists prescribe eyeglasses , contact lenses , low vision aids; provide low vision care and vision therapy; and are licensed, in Illinois, to treat and prescribe medications for certain eye problems and diseases.

An optometrist is required to complete an undergraduate college education, plus four years of professional education in a college of optometry.

Because optometry is considered a primary care profession, residencies are not part of the normal education and training process, so upon graduation from an optometry school, an optometrist is ready to practice.

Optometrists consult with ophthalmologists when necessary and maintain close and useful relationships.

What is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a Medical Doctor, whose specialized education and training qualifies them to provide a full spectrum of total eye care. An ophthalmologist is licensed to practice medicine and perform the same duties and responsibilities of an optometrist, but the scope of an ophthalmologist’s practice is much broader. Ophthalmologists specialize in all aspects of eye care, including medical and surgical eye care; diagnosis and treatment of disease and visual complications caused by other systemic medical conditions, like diabetes ; prescribe and administer drugs; and perform complex, intricate, and delicate eye surgery.

The academic and educational qualifications an ophthalmologist must achieve are considerable. After completing an undergraduate college education, an ophthalmologist must complete 4 years of medical school, followed by 1 year of internship. After being awarded the degree of MD, the ophthalmologist is further required to complete 3 to 4 years of Ophthalmology residency training. An ophthalmologist can then opt for an additional fellowship program of 1 to 2 years in specialized areas of eye care and eye surgery. That means 8 years of education for an optometrist, as compared to 13-15 years for an ophthalmologist.

Competition for admission to medical school is fierce. Admissions require a high GPA in college, an outstanding score on the MCAT, excellent recommendations, and applicants must have clear goals, and possess the unique qualities of compassion, empathy, integrity, a caring personality, and strong work ethics with a commitment to principles.

Ophthalmologists are fully trained medical doctors and are trained as surgeons. They are the best qualified to understand the “whole patient”, to formulate the most appropriate diagnosis, and to provide the highest level of medical and surgical care for treatment and management of eye conditions and diseases.

Often vision insurance plans dictate whether you have the freedom to choose between an ophthalmologist or an optometrist. If you have vision insurance, or if your medical insurance plan covers eye care, you will need to check with your insurance carrier or the doctor’s office, to see if they are a participating provider in their network.

Choosing an eye professional is an important health care decision. Don’t take your vision for granted.

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