Getting Your Eyes Examined: Ophthalmologists and Optometrists

  • BY Lainie Petersen

A common scenario:

One day you realize that something isn’t quite right with your eyes: You have blurry vision, you have to hold your book at arm’s length to read it, or your eyes are just feeling dry and itchy. You start thinking that you haven’t had an eye exam in awhile, so decide to schedule an appointment with an eye doctor.

(What can get confusing, however, is figuring out which type of eye doctor you want to work with.)

You have choices when it comes to eye care. You can choose to work with an ophthalmologist, a medical doctor or osteopathic physician who specializes in treating the eye, or an optometrist, a health care professional who is trained to provide primary care to people with vision problems or who are suffering from certain eye conditions.

Here’s the scoop on both these professions:

Ophthalmologists: To become an ophthalmologist, a person must complete medical school as well as a residency program in ophthalmology. Many ophthalmologists complete additional residencies or fellowships in one or more sub-specialties as well. Because they are medical doctors, ophthalmologists have a very broad scope of practice and can prescribe medicines and perform surgery.

Optometrists: While optometrists aren’t medical doctors, they must complete a four-year Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree after completing their undergraduate work. Their scope of practice varies by state, but optometrists are usually able to perform routine eye exams, prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses and treat some eye conditions and diseases by prescribing some medications. Certain jurisdictions allow optometrists can perform some types of eye surgery.

Making the Choice

Here are some things to think about when choosing between an ophthalmologist or an optometrist:

  • Health Conditions: If you have other medical conditions (such as diabetes) that could affect your eyesight, an ophthalmologist may be your best choice. This is because he or she has significant knowledge of other organ systems besides the eyes and may be better able to both diagnose the source of your problem and customize a treatment regimen for you.
  • Do You Need Glasses?: If you suspect that you just need glasses, an optometrist may be your best choice. This is because optometrists do a lot of eye testing and lens prescribing as part of their work and they get very, very good at it over time.
  • Money Matters:  Check your insurance plan to find out which types of eye care services it covers. Many plans do not cover the cost of routine eye exams, contacts or eyeglasses. This means that if you don’t need medical care (such as surgery or medications) for an eye condition, you may end up paying for the doctor’s visit out-of-pocket. Some optometrists may charge less for an eye exam than an ophthalmologist, saving you money.
  • Comprehensive Eye Clinics: Ophthalmologists and optometrists sometimes work together in group practices. The advantage to seeking treatment at one of these practices is that you can book an appointment for an evaluation and then be directed to the type of eye care doctor that is best suited to treating your condition.


If you have a primary care practitioner (physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner) ask for help in making your choice.  Some eye conditions may not need specialist care and in other cases, your primary care provider can give you direction as to what kind of eye doctor you need to visit and even refer you to someone. In all cases, it is a good idea to check out any recommendations with your local Better Business Bureau or on one of the many online consumer or healthcare reporting services.