An ophthalmologist is a physician who diagnoses and treats problems of the eye. As opposed to optometrists, ophthalmologists are medical doctors, and their specialty is comprehensive eye care and eye surgery. An ophthalmologist can:
see patients for routine eye care
diagnose eye problems
prescribe glasses, contact lenses, and medications
provide refractive therapies to correct vision, such as LASIK
perform surgery on the eye
Ophthalmologists are trained in the same vision screening practices as optometrists; however, their practice tends to focus more on the medical and surgical management of complex eye disorders. Although vision is important, so is the physical health of the eye. An ophthalmologist performing an eye exam will examine the whole eye including the eyelids, the muscles that move the eye, the front and back parts of the eye, and the pressure inside the eye.
Patients sometimes see ophthalmologists as their primary eye care and vision doctors, or they may be referred to an ophthalmologist for treatment of a one-time problem with their eye, such as an infection. Ophthalmologists provide routine care for patients who have chronic eye diseases, such as glaucoma (where pressure inside the eye damages the optic nerve sending images to the brain) or macular degeneration (an age-related eye disease that causes vision loss). In addition to providing routine care, ophthalmologists will perform eye surgery on patients who need more serious treatment, such as a corneal transplant.
Optometry is primary care for vision, dealing with vision correction and certain diseases of the eye. Optometrists are the medical providers who prescribe glasses and contact lenses, and they are usually the ones who perform annual eye exams.
Optometrists attend four years of graduate school after college to study the health, function, and care of the eye before they become licensed. They are not medical doctors, unlike ophthalmologists, so they cannot perform surgery. However, optometrists can diagnose diseases of the eye and prescribe vision therapy, medications, and vision correction, such as glasses.
Some common conditions that may be seen by an optometrist include:
Refractive disorders, such as myopia and astigmatism, which require lenses to correct the vision
Glaucoma, a condition where increased pressure within the eye leads to damage to the optic nerve, the nerve that carries light images from the eye to the brain
Dry eye, where there are insufficient tears to lubricate the eye
Common infections of the eye, such as conjunctivitis
An optometry exam involves checking the patient’s vision as well as the eye itself and the tissues surrounding the eye. Optometrists may check the pressure of the eye or test to see how well the eyes focus and move. They may ask about any problems, discomfort, or concerns the patient has experienced related to their eyes.
Optometrists are the first stop for most people who need a medical provider to care for their vision health.