The Three Types Of Eye Doctors
Would you like a career helping people protect their eyesight and see as clearly as they can? You might consider becoming an optician, an optometrist, or an ophthalmologist. Many people think all three professionals are considered types of eye doctors, but only ophthalmologists are medical doctors. All three, however—opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists—play important roles in providing eye care.
Ophthalmologist vs. Optometrist vs. Optician
Opticians are technicians who fit eyeglasses, contact lenses, and other vision-correcting devices. Optometrists examine, diagnose, and treat patients’ eyes. Ophthalmologists are eye doctors who perform medical and surgical treatments for eye conditions.
The three types of eye health professionals also differ in their level of education. A job as an optician requires the shortest training, only a year or two of training after graduating high school. Preparing to become an optometrist takes about four years of optometry school after a four-year college degree. An ophthalmologist must have about eight years of medical training after a four-year college degree.
What Is an Optician?
Opticians are eye care professionals but not officially “eye doctors,” and they cannot give eye exams. They are technicians trained to fit eyeglass lenses and frames and contact lenses to correct vision problems. Opticians cannot diagnose or treat eye diseases or write prescriptions. Many have one or two years of training and are licensed, but not all states require opticians to have a license.
What Is an Optometrist?
Optometrists perform eye exams and vision tests, prescribe and dispense corrective lenses, detect eye abnormalities, and some can prescribe medications for eye diseases. Many people confuse the responsibilities of an optometrist and an ophthalmologist. Optometrists are not medical doctors. Instead, they have a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree after finishing three or more years of college and four years of optometry school.
What Is an Ophthalmologist?
To become an ophthalmologist, you must finish medical school and complete a residency in ophthalmology. These types of eye doctors have at least 12 years of training—four years each of undergraduate work, medical school, and post-graduate training. Ophthalmologists may provide corrective vision services (eyeglasses or contacts) or perform laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) or photorefractive keratectomy (PRK) surgeries to correct vision problems. They may also operate to treat such disorders as cataracts, diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma, macular degeneration, or strabismus (crossed eyes).
A Career as an Ophthalmologist
Most ophthalmologists have modest full-time workloads. A majority spend 30 to 45 hours a week seeing patients. Many ophthalmologists work in private practice, with regularly scheduled office hours, appointments, and procedures. Emergencies are rare, so ophthalmologists keep more regular hours than many other medical practitioners.
Training as an Ophthalmologist
The training needed to become an ophthalmologist differs from other types of eye professionals. To become an ophthalmologist, you must obtain a bachelor's degree, then complete four years of medical school at an accredited institution such as American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine (AUC). After that, you must complete one year of internship and a minimum of three years of a hospital-based residency in ophthalmology.
Undergraduates interested in ophthalmology often major in chemistry or biology. Some medical schools admit students with only three years of undergraduate coursework, but most schools require applicants to finish four years of college and earn a bachelor’s degree. During your junior year of college, you should study for and take the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®). The MCAT assesses your basic knowledge of science. The exam includes sections on biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, scientific inquiry, and reasoning skills.
You will begin medical school with classes in such fields as anatomy, biology, chemistry, and behavioral sciences. Your last two years of medical school will be spent with patients under the supervision of licensed physicians. You will complete rotations in internal, family, and pediatric medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, and surgery, as well as any chosen electives.
After graduating from medical school, aspiring ophthalmologists complete a one-year transitional year internship, which serves as the clinical base year prior to an ophthalmology residency. Some physicians substitute an internship in general medicine or surgery for the transitional year. During a transitional year internship, you work directly with patients under the supervision of an experienced ophthalmologist. You begin to learn how to examine, diagnose, and treat eye-related problems.
After your internship, you will do a residency in which you will learn more about how to examine and treat ophthalmology patients. You will also begin to master such surgical techniques as cataract removal and glaucoma laser treatments.
Ophthalmologists in the United States must hold a license to practice medicine. You may apply for a medical license from your state’s medical licensing board at the end of your residency. Each state has unique requirements. To obtain a license, you need to pass all three parts of the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE®). You will take the first part of the exam at the end of your second year of medical school, the second part during your fourth year, and the third part after your first year of residency.
Some ophthalmologists specialize in a specific area of medical or surgical eye care to treat more complex or specific conditions in certain parts of the eye, or certain groups of patients. These doctors usually complete a fellowship consisting of one or two years of additional, in-depth training in such subspecialties as refractive (vision correcting) surgery and the treatment of glaucoma and diseases of the retina or cornea.
Now that you know the major differences between an ophthalmologist, an optometrist, and an optician, take a deeper dive into ophthalmology and learn more about becoming a physician through AUC’s MD program. It could be the first step toward a rewarding career in medicine!
This post was medically reviewed by Dr. Valerie Garden, MD ’89
American University of the Caribbean School of Medicine is accredited by the Accreditation Commission on Colleges of Medicine (ACCM, www.accredmed.org), which is the accreditor used by the country of St. Maarten.
Frequently Asked Questions
You already know that an ophthalmologist is an MD who specializes in ophthalmology. An ocular surgeon is an ophthalmologist who has taken additional fellowship training to subspecialize in oculoplastic surgery (ophthalmic plastic and reconstructive surgery of the periorbital and facial tissues). Common oculoplastic procedures include blepharoplasty and eyelid ptosis surgery (lid lift), brow or forehead lifts, orbital fracture evaluation and repair, and orbital tumor surgery and reconstruction.
The “highest” eye doctor—the type with the most extensive training—is an ophthalmologist, who must hold an MD degree before completing four years of additional ophthalmology schooling. Subspecialists in the field require still more education. Ophthalmologists are the only physicians medically trained for the full range of eye and vision care.