An optometrist is an eye doctor capable of examining the eyes for vision defects, signs of injury, ocular conditions, and problems with general eye health.

Optometrists are primary healthcare specialists. They differ from both ophthalmologists and opticians.

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who can perform surgery for eye conditions. Opticians are practitioners who help fit vision-correcting devices to help treat sight problems.

This article will examine what optometrists can treat and the differences between optometrists, ophthalmologists, and opticians.

An optometrist conducts an eye exam for a school-aged boy.Share on Pinterest
Optometrists conduct eye exams, evaluate vision, assess eye conditions, and perform some procedures.

Licensed by the state, optometrists can only perform procedures that fall within their scope of practice. The State Board of Optometry determines this, and it varies throughout the United States.

The three scopes of practice are:

  • Practice authority: This includes foreign body removal and surgical procedures.
  • Prescriptive authority: This includes the prescription of certain medications and classifications of controlled substances, enforced by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
  • Surgical authority: This includes the treatment of the lacrimal system, such as the orbital structures for tear production and drainage.

Optometrists must hold a license in each state, which is subject to renewal.

All optometrists provide general eye care, while some specialize in different areas. Optometrists offer treatment for common eye complaints, such as dry eyes and eye infections.

The job requires a bachelor’s degree and admission into optometry school for another degree. A 4-year program leads to the official title doctor of optometry. Despite the title, however, optometrists do not need to go to medical school.

Conditions optometrists treat

The following are some of the conditions that optometrists can treat.


Glaucoma refers to damage to the optic nerve, which connects the eye to the brain. It is a leading cause of irreversible blindness in the U.S., affecting more than 3 million people. An optometrist can diagnose glaucoma and devise a treatment plan.


Cataracts occur when the lens in the eye develops cloudy patches. These can grow larger, seriously affecting vision and potentially causing blindness.

Although an optometrist can diagnose cataracts and prescribe eyeglasses to help with symptoms, specialist surgery from an ophthalmologist may be necessary. An optometrist will also provide preoperative and postoperative care.

Retinal disorders

Most retinal disorders share similar symptoms, such as blurred vision or vision loss. These disorders include floaters, retinal tear or detachment, macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and epiretinal membrane.

Optometrists can diagnose retinal disorders, and they may refer a person to an ophthalmologist if treatment is necessary.


Also known as nearsightedness, myopia is a vision condition that makes focusing on distant objects difficult.

Treatments include eyeglasses, contact lenses, corneal refractive therapy laser procedures, or surgery (in extreme cases). An ophthalmologist will usually perform laser or surgical procedures.

Color blindness

Optometrists often check children for color blindness in routine assessments. Diagnosis is also straightforward as an adult. There is currently no cure, but eyeglasses and contact lenses can help, as can various visual aids.

Systemic diseases

Some systemic diseases have ocular manifestations. Optometrists can help detect diabetes, high blood pressure, thyroid cancers, and HIV.

What do optometrists do?

The job itself is varied, from conducting eye exams, evaluating vision, and assessing eye conditions to writing prescriptions, recommending further treatments, and providing preoperative and postoperative care.

An optometrist can also specialize in areas such as contact lenses, sports vision, education, and research.

An optometrist may work in many different environments. These include:

  • a solo or group private practice
  • a community health center, Veterans Affairs medical center, or hospital
  • an academic setting
  • a research facility
  • a retail, optical, or corporate setting
  • the military

Statistics show that just under 40,000 people held jobs as optometrists in 2019, with a mean annual wage of $122,980.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor or doctor of osteopathic medicine who can work as a physician and surgeon. Entry requirements are more stringent than those associated with optometry, with extensive training required.

Generally, this will take the form of 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, and 3–8 years of additional specialized training.

Ophthalmologists are the only practitioners with medical training to diagnose all eye and visual problems. Ophthalmologists and optometrists often work as a team.

Conditions ophthalmologists treat

Ophthalmologists are responsible for the treatment of almost all eye conditions and visual issues.

Common surgeries for an ophthalmologist may include:

  • cataract surgery
  • glaucoma surgery
  • strabismus surgery (for squints)
  • corneal transplantation
  • surgery for retinal disorders
  • oculoplastic surgery
  • orbital surgery

The career path of an ophthalmologist can be varied, from treating disease and performing surgery to prescribing eyeglasses and contact lenses. However, because of their extensive training, ophthalmologists can also move into scientific research and subspecialization.

In 2015, there were just over 19,200 active ophthalmologists in the U.S. The mean annual wage of a physician-ophthalmologist in 2020 is $295,431.

An optician can dispense prescription eyeglasses and contact lenses. They are not medical doctors.

There are different educational pathways to becoming an optician, including a high school diploma, a degree, and an apprenticeship.

Through a degree or approved training program, a person may acquire licensure. This is important because some states require state licensure for opticians. A set of continued education hours may also be necessary each year to maintain the license.

An optician also needs good communication skills, as they regularly engage with the general public.

The key roles of an optician include:

  • fitting eyeglasses and contacts lenses from a prescription written by an ophthalmologist or optometrist
  • providing, adjusting, and repairing eyeglasses, contact lenses, and frames
  • taking facial measurements and advising on lenses and frames

Opticians can work in the offices of optometrists or physicians or in retail stores specializing in eyewear and optical goods.

Opticians are likely to be in demand in the future, due to an increasingly aging population and additional eyewear requirements.

Statistics suggest that 74,500 people held jobs as opticians in 2018, and the median annual wage for opticians in 2019 was $37,840.

An optometrist has earned the doctor of optometry degree. An ophthalmologist is a medically trained doctor, while opticians are healthcare technicians who can help fit corrective vision devices.

If an optometrist cannot offer medical treatment, they will refer a person to an ophthalmologist, who can perform more advanced procedures.

As a career, ophthalmology is often more financially rewarding than optometry, but the education and training are more extensive and time consuming.