Optometry vs Ophthalmology. What is the difference?

One of the most confusing parts of vision and eye care for many patients is understanding the difference between optometrists and ophthalmologists. Understanding the difference between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist is important in understanding where you should go, when, and for what. There is considerable overlap in certain areas between the two, but there are also several striking differences.

What is an Optometrist?

Traditionally, Optometrists (also known as O.D.s or Doctors of Optometry) were trained to diagnose and treat vision conditions like farsightedness, nearsightedness and astigmatism, as well as fit and prescribe contact lenses and prescription eyeglass lenses. A large part of their job was (and still is) to perform “refractions” — or vision correction exams.

However, over the past 20 years, optometry training has become much more medically-oriented than in the past, and optometrists now receive rigorous and comprehensive training in not just optics and refractions, but also the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease, as well as other systemic conditions that can effect vision and eye health.

Although optometrists are not M.D.s, most current optometrists can prescribe certain medications, as well as diagnose and treat a broad-range of medical conditions that impact the eye, including glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, retinal disease and ocular disorders associated with diabetes and high blood pressure.

In fact, it’s not unusual for a skilled optometrist to be the first health care professional to spot developing systemic conditions like diabetes during routine eye exams.

Optometric Training and Education

Most optometrists will undergo four years of undergraduate training — usually a pre-med type curriculum — and then four years of post-graduate doctoral training. Coursework will typically include pharmacology, ocular disease diagnosis and treatment, vision therapy, optics, physiology and anatomy, and countless hours of hands-on clinical work.

All optometrists must pass a series of rigorous nationally-administered exams to earn their license to practice. Some optometrists will also complete a one-year post-graduate residency to gain more specialized expertise in a particular area.

All of this is done to prepare optometrists to serve as the “front-line” for day-to-day vision care.

What is an Ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (M.D.) that specializes in the eye.

While the training between ophthalmologists and optometrists is now very similar (especially around ocular disease diagnosis and treatment,) there are some marked differences between the two.

First, ophthalmologists are trained to perform surgery, which optometrists are not. This includes things like Lasik vision correction as well as removal of cataracts, or surgery related to eye trauma, burns or detachments of retina.

Second, ophthalmologists have additional specialized training in diagnosing and treating more complex medical eye conditions. So it is not unusual for optometrists and ophthalmologists to work closely-together on hard-to-diagnose conditions or ongoing disease treatment and management.

Third, as M.D.s, ophthalmologists are generally allowed to prescribe a broader-range of prescription drugs than optometrists.

Ophthalmology Training and Education

Becoming an ophthalmologist requires a medical degree and completing residency like other branches of medicine. Some ophthalmologists can undergo additional training if they choose and focus on a specialty within the field.

Ophthalmologists are trained to do medical treatment for assorted eye problems, and do complex and delicate eye surgeries for qualified candidates.

Generally speaking, optometrists function as primary care providers – much like your family practitioner – while an opthalmologist provide more secondary, more specialized treatment – like your cardiologist.

Often, optometrists and ophthalmologists will work together to provide complete eye care for a patient who needs both medical monitoring and surgical intervention.

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