Optician vs. Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist

I’m always immersed in ophthalmology, but I was particularly immersed last week, attending an ophthalmology conference in Brazil. So it seems appropriate to focus today’s post on some eye-related professions. In particular, what’s the difference between an optician, an optometrist, and an ophthalmologist?

I got my first pair of oh-so-fashionable “pop-bottle” glasses when I was about 10 years old. It was the first time I realized that “normal”-eyed people could see individual leaves on trees, as opposed to just big blobs of green. Amazing!

The optician helped me choose the frames that would support the thick glass and look good on me. (Which is a lot, for a dorky fourth-grader.) Being 1976-ish, they were rounded-square, silver wire frames. So perfect with my Dorothy Hamill haircut and embroidered wide-leg jeans.

But first, in order to get a prescription for lenses, I went to see the optometrist. He did all kinds of tests, having me follow his pen, shining a light in my eyes, and asking me, “Which is better, one or two? Three or four?” He then decided how strong my glamorous new lenses should be.

I didn’t see an ophthalmologist at that time, but I knew other people who did. My mom had some weird things called floaters and flashers, and some more serious stuff like scratches on one of her corneas. My grandmother had to have cataracts removed, and a friend had a detached retina that required surgery.

My dilemma was, how do you remember which of these O’s is which?

It’s actually really easy! The longer the job title, the more training the person has, and the greater their scope of practice is*:

  • OPTICIAN – 8 letters/3 syllables, 1–2 years of training
    • 1- or 2-year degree, certificate or diploma.
    • Fill prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses; fit frames.
  • OPTOMETRIST – 11 letters/4 syllables, 8+ years of training
    • 4 years undergrad + 4 years optometric school. Some optometrists will do residencies in optometry subspecialties.
    • Degree: OD (oculus doctor). Like the JD (juris doctor) and PhD (philosophiae doctor), the OD is not a medical degree.
    • Provide eye exams; diagnose and treat some eye conditions; prescribe some medications.
  • OPHTHALMOLOGIST – 15 letters/5 syllables, 12+ years of training
    • 4 years undergrad + 4 years medical school + 1 year internship + 3 years residency. Many ophthalmologists also obtain fellowships in ophthalmological subspecialties.
    • Degree: MD (medicinae doctor) or DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine). Both of these are medical degrees.
    • Provide eye exams; diagnose and treat all eye conditions; prescribe medications; perform surgery.

* According to US standards. Other countries may require different qualifications or have different scopes of practice.

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