image created by the author, Dr. Courtney Gonzales
A lot of conversations we have with patients in my office are about how, as an optometrist, I can treat your eye infection, or I can evaluate you for glaucoma or macular degeneration. I can even remove foreign bodies from the eyes, order imaging, and prescribe medications! As an optometrist, I am more than able to treat and manage disease just as well as I prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses. Optometrists are often confused with opticians and even obstetricians! So let’s dive in and clear up a lot of common misconceptions about the similarities and differences between optometrists and ophthalmologists.
Ophthalmologists are physicians who specialize in a branch of medicine dealing with the structure, functions, and diseases of the eye. A lot of ophthalmologists will specialize in specific areas of medical or surgical eye care such as cataract surgery or glaucoma. Other specialties include retina, cornea, and refractive surgery. Ophthalmologists hold a bachelor’s degree in pre-med undergraduate courses as well as four years of medical school and often three years of residency training in ophthalmology.
Optometrists are physicians who provide primary eye and vision care. They hold a bachelor’s degree in pre-med undergraduate courses as well as four years of optometry school focusing solely on the eye. A lot of optometrists also do a 1 year residency specializing in ocular disease, pediatrics, or contact lenses for example.
The main difference that separates whether an optometrist can see you vs. an ophthalmologist is usually surgical related. I like to think of optometrists as your primary eye care provider. One who can, of course, prescribe you glasses and contact lenses, but one that also can diagnose, treat, and manage eye and vision conditions and disease. When it reaches a point where our treatment alone cannot help anymore or you need a specialist, we would refer you to the appropriate provider, much like your primary care physician would refer when you need, say an endocrinologist or oncologist, etc
Optometrists take both medical and vision insurance. Vision insurance covers your routine comprehensive eye exam. Medical insurance would cover any medical testing, such as visual fields or OCT imaging, and medical related office visits for things such as eye infections, foreign bodies, glaucoma evaluations, etc.
The kind of eye exams you may receive in retail type settings can give people a false idea of what optometrists are capable of. Those type settings are not set up for medical office visits, they are primarily for routine exams to prescribe glasses and contacts.
Hopefully this article will help clear up some common misconceptions about what kind of doctor you need to see for your eye health. Certainly, you can see an ophthalmologist, but don’t rule out the optometrist who is likely easier to get in with and usually accepts more insurance to help cover your eye care needs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Courtney Gonzales is an optometrist hailing from the great midwestern state of Indiana. She has spent time working in private practice as well as retail settings working with optometrists and ophthalmologists alike. She enjoys spending time with her family exploring the outdoors, reading, and anything crafty.