What types of eye doctors are there?

When a person makes an appointment to see an eye doctor, they may consult with an ophthalmologist, an optometrist, or an optician. Each type of eye care practitioner will have different levels of training and expertise and be able to provide different services.

There are three different types of eye care practitioner: optometrists, opticians, and ophthalmologists.

Each has a different level of training and expertise, and each will provide different levels of care.

This article reviews the differences between the types of eye care professional. It also discusses the roles of other eye care practitioners, including nurses, medical assistants, and technicians.

Optometrists provide primary vision care. Their services range from eyesight testing and correction to diagnosing, treating, and managing changes in vision.

A person who is training to become an optometrist will attend optometry school, not medical school. It takes 4 years of postgraduate studies to obtain a doctorate in optometry.

The practice of optometry involves:

  • conducting eye exams
  • conducting vision tests
  • prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses
  • detecting certain eye irregularities
  • prescribing medication for certain eye conditions
  • performing specialized surgical procedures
  • providing visual rehabilitation

In the United States, each state board of optometry defines the drugs or services that an optometrist can provide.

Optometrists in some states can prescribe schedule II drugs, which include the opioids:

Five states allow optometrists to perform a procedure called foreign body removal. Optometrists in the following states are also allowed to perform laser eye surgeries:

  • Alaska
  • Oklahoma
  • Louisiana
  • Kentucky

To find out what an optometrist can do in a particular state or country, a person can consult the relevant regional boards of optometry.

Sometimes, an optometrist is more easily accessible than an ophthalmologist. It is worth finding out if an optometrist can perform a test or procedure before calling an ophthalmologist.

An optician is a technician trained to design and fit the following visual aids:

  • eyeglass lenses and frames
  • contact lenses
  • other devices to correct a person’s eyesight

Opticians use prescriptions from an optometrist or ophthalmologist to verify and fit the required visual aids. They do not have the necessary training to diagnose eyesight problems, and they cannot treat eye conditions.

To become an ophthalmologist, a person needs to go to medical school. Ophthalmologists will have at least 8 years of medical school training. Once they become an eye doctor, they are licensed to practice medicine and surgery.

An ophthalmologist can offer the same medical services as an optometrist, including prescribing and fitting eyeglasses and contact lenses to correct vision problems. However, ophthalmologists can also:

  • diagnose and treat all eye conditions
  • perform eye surgeries
  • conduct scientific research into the causes and cures for eye conditions and vision problems

Sometimes, ophthalmologists can also detect health problems that are not directly related to the eye but become apparent in a routine eye exam. If this occurs, the ophthalmologist will recommend that the person consult their family doctor.

Ophthalmologists are specialized medical doctors, but some ophthalmologists may choose a subspecialty. This involves continuing their education and training in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care.

Some subspecialties of ophthalmology include:

Cornea specialist

The cornea is the clear, protective outer layer of the eye. It acts as a lens to focus light entering the eyeball.

A cornea specialist can diagnose and treat corneal eye conditions such as Fuchs’ dystrophy and keratoconus. They may also perform surgeries such as refractive surgery and corneal transplantation.

People who have trauma to the cornea or complicated contact lens fittings may also consult with a cornea specialist.

Retina specialist

The retina is the thin layer of tissue that lines the inner part of the back of the eyeball. Its role is to receive light and send visual signals to the brain.

A retina specialist can diagnose and treat retinal eye conditions. This may involve surgically repairing torn or detached retinas.

Retina specialists can also treat conditions of the vitreous, which is the gel-like substance in the eyeball.

Glaucoma specialist

Glaucoma specialists treat the eye condition glaucoma. This causes fluid to build up within the eye. The excess fluid puts pressure on the eye, causing damage to the optic nerve.

Neurology specialist

Ophthalmologists who specialize in neurology are called neuro-ophthalmologists. This subspecialty deals with vision problems related to how the eye communicates with the brain, nerves, and muscles.

Some conditions that neuro-ophthalmologists can diagnose and treat include:

Pediatric specialist

A pediatric ophthalmologist treats infants and children with childhood eye conditions and other eye issues.

Some eye issues a pediatric specialist may treat include:

  • misalignment of the eyes
  • uncorrected refractive errors
  • vision differences between the two eyes

Plastic surgery

Plastic surgeons who specialize in ophthalmology can repair damage to the eyelids, bones, or other structures around the eye and tear drainage system. They may also administer injections to improve the look and function of facial structures around the eye.

Ophthalmologists sometimes require additional help from nurses, medical assistants, and technicians. The following sections provide more detail on these professionals.

Nurses

Ophthalmic registered nurses have undergone extra training in eye care. These nurses can inject medications and assist with office or hospital surgeries.

Some nurses with specialized training in ophthalmology are clinic or hospital administrators.

Medical assistants

Ophthalmic medical assistants can perform a variety of tests to help an eye care practitioner during an examination or procedure.

Technicians

Ophthalmic technicians or technologists are highly trained assistants who can help an eye care practitioner with more complex tests and operations.

An ophthalmic photographer, for example, uses cameras and photographic techniques to document a person’s eye condition.

Opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists are the three most common eye care professionals. Nurses, medical assistants, and technicians can also specialize in eye care.

Ophthalmologists diagnose and treat all eye conditions. Some ophthalmologists continue their training to specialize in a particular eye condition or part of the eye.

Optometrists can offer different services depending on the country or state they work in. Some optometrists can perform certain laser eye procedures, whereas others can only perform foreign body removal.

Opticians can design and fit visual aids prescribed by an ophthalmologist or optometrist.

A person must consult an appropriate eye care professional to get the care they need for their specific eye or vision problem.