Deciding an eye care provider is an essential health care choice. After all, you will be entrusting your eye doctor to protect your cherished sense of sight and help you sustain a lifetime of good vision.
To help make the best decision, it’s important to understand that there are two types of eye doctors: optometrists and ophthalmologists. And for eye care providers that are not doctors, there are opticians.
What Is An Optometrist?
An optometrist is an eye physician who has acquired the Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. Optometrists evaluate the eyes for both vision and health problems, and correct refractive errors by designating eyeglasses and contact lenses. Some optometrists also propose low vision care and vision therapy.
Optometrists in the United States also are authorized to recommend medications to treat certain eye conditions and diseases. The scope of medical care that can be offered by optometrists is based on state law. (For details about the extent of the practice of optometrists where you live, visit the website of your state’s board of optometry.)
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Both ophthalmologists and optometrists examine eyes and prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses.
Optometrists also may participate in your pre- and post-operative treatment if you have eye operation performed by an ophthalmologist. With a few exemptions, optometrists in the U.S. are not qualified or licensed to conduct eye surgery.
An optometrist usually must finish a four-year college degree program in the sciences, and an additional four years of post-graduate professional training in optometry school. In this respect, the educational requirements of an optometrist are similar to those of a dentist.
Like ophthalmologists, optometrists need to fulfill continuing education requirements on a continuous basis to renew their licensure and stay up-to-date with the latest standards and practices of eye care.
What Is An Ophthalmologist?
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or a doctor of osteopathic medicine (DO) who focuses on the eye and vision care. Ophthalmologists are educated to conduct eye exams, diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medications and perform eye surgery. They also execute prescriptions for eyeglasses and contact lenses.
Ophthalmologists nominally complete four years of college, four years of medical school, one year of internship, and a minimum of three years of ophthalmology residency program at a hospital.
So (to extend the analogy with dentistry), whereas the education of an optometrist is similar to that of a general dentist, the training and education of an ophthalmologist are more comparable to that of an oral surgeon.
What Is An Optician?
An optician is not an eye doctor. However, opticians are an essential part of your eye care team. Opticians use prescripts drafted by an optometrist or an ophthalmologist to fit and sell eyeglasses and other eyewear paraphernalia.
In some states, opticians must perform an optician training program and be authorized. Other states don’t demand opticians to acquire formal training or licensure. Some states permit opticians to fit contact lenses, usually after finishing a certification program.
Which Eye Doctor Should I See: An Optometrist Or An Ophthalmologist?
If your eyes are well and don’t need specialized medicinal or surgical treatment, the type of eye doctor you choose for a routine eye exam is a matter of personal preference.
Optometrists and ophthalmologists both perform routine eye exams and both types of eye doctors are trained to detect, diagnose and manage eye diseases that require medical and non-medical treatment.
If you already have a medical eye problem — such as glaucoma, macular degeneration or cataracts — it is important to seek care from an eye doctor who is highly trained and skilled in monitoring and treating your condition. In many cases, this may mean that medical or surgical eye care by a specially trained ophthalmologist is in order. In such cases, your optometrist (or general ophthalmologist) may refer you to a colleague who is a specialist in treating your condition.
Most optometrists offer medical treatment for common eye problems (such as dry eyes and eye infections) and certain chronic eye diseases (such as glaucoma). But specific eye disorders require treatment by an ophthalmologist, particularly if surgery or other specialty care is needed.
Ophthalmologists are medical eye physicians who are licensed to conduct eye surgery.
In many situations, care for a particular eye problem may be provided by an optometrist and an ophthalmologist working together as a team. This organization structure is referred to as co-management.
In co-management, your primary care eye physician (usually an optometrist) introduces you to a specialist (ordinarily an ophthalmologist) for a comprehensive diagnosis and treatment plan. The ophthalmologist may decide to handle the problem medicinally, perform eye surgery, or both. After the ailment is controlled or surgically treated, the specialist then sends you back to your primary care eye doctor, who enters to monitor and treat your condition or conduct post-operative care based on the specialist’s recommendations.
Co-management is a particularly good option if you are pleased with the quality of eye care you are getting from your primary care eye doctor, but you want to have any particular medical eye conditions managed by an qualified specialist.
Vision Insurance And Your Choice Of Eye Doctor
If you have health insurance or a vision insurance policy that covers eye care, one factor in deciding on an eye doctor is determining if he or she is an authorized provider under your medical insurance plan, and what your out-of-pocket cost will be for the exam.
Typically you can get this information by calling the doctor’s office and giving them your insurance information. Many insurance companies also post on their websites a directory of eye doctors who accept their vision plans.
Most optometrists and ophthalmologists who administer general eye care for the whole family tend to welcome Medicare for elderly patients. But be cognizant that while Medicare covers your appointments at an eye doctor for medically required eye care, it does not cover regular eye exams.
If you have Medicare coverage and are just having a routine eye exam to have your eyes checked and your glasses prescription updated, payment for the exam will be your burden except you also have a private vision insurance policy that covers conventional exams. But if you are qualified for Medicare and you have a pre-existing eye problem such as cataracts or macular degeneration, part of your comprehensive eye exam may be covered. Ask your eye doctor for details.
Also, when calling an eye physicians office, ask how they handle insurance claims. Will you have to pay for the exam and then present the claim to your insurer yourself, or will the eye doctor’s office bill your insurance organization for the exam, so no payment is need from you?
If you don’t have an insurance policy that includes eye care, find out the eye doctor’s compensation for a routine exam and for any individual testing that may be required. While you don’t want to choose an eye doctor based on cost alone, it is a factor to consider.
Other Factors When Choosing An Eye Doctor
When inquiring about the services an eye doctor provides, ask what happens if a problem is detected that requires treatment beyond the doctor’s scope of care. Which medical and surgical specialists do they refer to, and where are they located?
A doctor’s professional affiliations and memberships can help to indicate expertise in specific areas of practice; for example, ophthalmologists may belong to the American Society of Retinal Specialists or the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons. Some organizations have rigorous standards for membership or Fellowship, such as the American Academy of Optometry.
Lastly, a significant agent you should recognize when determining an eye doctor is the direction of that physician by friends, family members or coworkers. Word-of-mouth references often are the best way to find a friendly, 2qualified and caring eye doctor and avoid troublesome surprises when you go to have your eyes tested