Similarities Between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist

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According to the Oxford dictionary, the word ophthalmology is defined as the branch of medicine concerned with the study and treatment of disorders and diseases of the eye. There are various professionals working within this sector of healthcare, such as optometrists and ophthalmologists. So, which person do you need to see and when? Although the wording may be similar, both are undoubtedly healthcare workers involving eye care, optometrists, and ophthalmologists are completely different professions. In this article, we aim to lessen the confusion by distinguishing the key differences between the two.

What can an ophthalmologist do that an optometrist cannot?

Ophthalmologists are trained medical doctors who furthered their education to specialize in ophthalmology. The main difference is that ophthalmologists can perform complex eye surgery such as for glaucoma and cataract surgery and lens implants. They can treat and operate on acute eye injuries for instance trauma, as well as perform laser eye surgery to correct vision impairment. Ophthalmologists are the main diagnosticians for complex eye conditions for example glaucoma, cataracts, iritis (inflammation of the iris), and macular degeneration (a condition affecting the central part of the retina and causing vision impairment). 

Optometrists cannot diagnose or treat eye conditions or perform surgery as they are not medical doctors. They are primary health care professionals working in eye care by testing eyesight and managing vision changes. They can also prescribe corrective lenses (such as glasses and contact lenses) as well as detect eye abnormalities that may be referred to an opthalmologist for further management. 

Is an optometrist the same as an eye doctor?

There is some confusion about what we refer to when we talk about an eye doctor. In short, ophthalmologists are medical doctors and can be called eye doctors. The old-fashioned term ‘eye doctor’ refers to both optometrists and ophthalmologists. 

To study optometry, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, followed by a four-year course in optometry, whereupon the word Doctor of Optometry (OD) is granted. Optometrists can therefore be called ‘eye doctors’ when they have completed their doctorate degree in optometry. However, they are still not qualified medical doctors and the true ‘eye doctors’ therefore are the ophthalmologists as they are trained medical doctors who further specialised in ophthalmology.

Can an optometrist prescribe eye drops?

Yes, according to the Canadian Association for Optometrists and the American Optometric Association, they can prescribe eye drops for various eye conditions. For example, they may prescribe eyedrops for eye infections such as conjunctivitis (also called pinkeye). 

Can optometrists treat eye infections?

Optometrists can prescribe eye drops to treat a range of conditions, including eye infections. They can also manage eye conditions such as inflammation of the iris (iritis), glaucoma, cataracts, and monitor vision changes for medical conditions such as diabetes. However, for more complex eye conditions, they refer patients to eye specialists, ophthalmologists, for further management. 

Can an optometrist be called a doctor?

Yes, however, they are not medical doctors. They have a doctor’s title due to their qualifications, however, this is not to be confused with the doctor’s title for ophthalmologists who are trained, medical doctors.

Is optometry hard to study?

To study optometry, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, preferably a bachelor’s in science due to the nature of the subjects. The four-year optometry degree compromises subjects related to the field such as anatomy of the visual system, physiology, biology, ocular diseases, and pharmacology. The subjects are complex, and students have to be diligent over the course of four years. 

Why are optometrists not called Doctors?

Optometrists do not study medicine and are therefore not qualified medical doctors. However, they can study for a doctorate in optometry whereafter they can use the doctor’s title, but this is more in line with a Ph.D. qualification that has academic significance. They are not able to perform eye surgery as they are not medically trained. 

Can optometrists use the DR title in the USA?

Yes, optometrists who have furthered their studies with a postgraduate doctorate degree in optometry, are called Doctors of Optometry (OD). However, they are still not medical doctors such as ophthalmologists.

How to become an ophthalmologist and optometrist in Canada?

Prospective ophthalmologists need to go to university to obtain a bachelor’s degree in medicine and surgery (MBBS). Thereafter, they apply for a postgraduate degree in ophthalmology by completing a five-year residency program. They are then licensed to practice medicine and surgery specializing in eyes. Most medical schools in Canada offer ophthalmology as a specialization.

To become an optometrist in Canada, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree in sciences and thereafter pass the optometry admission test (OAT) to be accepted in the optometry course. The following step is to enroll in the doctorate in optometry program, which is a four-year degree course that is only available at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and the University of Montreal in Quebec. On completion of the doctorate degree, you then must pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry exam (NBEO) and complete a year residency program in the field of specialization of interest. Thereafter, you can get licensed to practice as an optometrist. 

Author: Leanie Huxham

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