This is a question that I am asked at least once a week. I completely understand not knowing as the scope of practice and the landscape of healthcare in general have changed so much in the last 30+ years. In short: an ophthalmologist is a surgeon who has undergone training to perform eye surgeries such as cataract removal and LASIK vision correction. An optometrist is a Doctor who treats eye disease, prescribes medications & vision correction and co-manages surgical cases but it not licensed to perform surgical procedures themselves. Fairly straight forward, right? Then why so much confusion and, more importantly, who should you call when you are in need??
Confusion comes from several sources. The scope of practice in optometry is regulated from state to state by each individual board. For example- I went to optometry school in Oklahoma where I was trained to perform laser based procedures such as SLT’s (surgeries for glaucoma) and YAG capsulotomies (a “film” in your vision after cataract surgery) but I am not able to perform either of these procedures in Arkansas due to the scope of practice as defined by our regulatory board. This creates some confusion as to what optometrists do. Another point of misconception is the prescription of oral medications. This is a something that optometrists do when the condition is relative to eye health. The use of therapeutic medications (fancy talk for “medicine”) is something that optometrists did not do extensively 30 years ago. As health care needs in America have changed, the education of optometrists and the regulation from state boards shifted towards a more medical model of practice for optometrists. O.D.‘s (optometrists) are now being educated with high quality curriculum focused heavily on medical care as opposed to only learning about vision correction. Oral antibiotics, steroid eye drops, and antibiotic eye drops are some of the most common prescriptions written by optometrists. Ophthalmologists can do all of these things as well!
So when should you see an optometrist and when should you see an ophthalmologist? In short- see whoever you are more comfortable with as a doctor and whoever meets your needs as a patient. Both are well trained to write medication prescriptions, write glasses prescriptions, manage eye health conditions relative to systemic illnesses (ie diabetes and hypertension), remove foreign bodies from an injured eye, and fit you into contacts. When it comes down to surgeries- an ophthalmologist will ultimately do the procedure, but that is often co-managed with an optometrist for pre- and post-operative care. I have a healthy relationship with several wonderful ophthalmologists in NWA and will be happy to refer you to one when needed!
As an optometrist I am happy to manage your annual eye health exam needs, eye emergency needs, and to co-manage with a surgeon when necessary. Both specialists are well trained and work together every day due to the high demand for eye care in America. Our goal and sworn duty is to take care of your eye needs, no matter who you choose to see.
Thanks! I Hope this was helpful!
-Benjamin Lynch, O.D.