Differences between an Optician, Optometrist, & Ophthalmologist

There are a number of different eye care professionals, each of which has a different role in providing the appropriate treatment for your eyes. It’s easy to become confused when presented with names like optometrist and ophthalmologist without a clear distinction between the two, and if you find yourself in that position, then this article will help clarify the situation

What is an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a fully trained and qualified doctor who specialises in the treatment of the eye. Like all other doctors, an ophthalmologist is trained in more general terms (meaning the body as a whole) as an undergraduate and then a junior doctor, before specialising in one field. This kind of training provides the level of background knowledge and experience that is needed in treating the eye as part of the whole body. Conditions like diabetes are not specifically diseases of the eye, but can have, if untreated, devastating effects on your vision. For example diabetic retinopathy, progressive damage to the retinas at the backs of your eyes, occurs as a consequence of diabetes.

An ophthalmologist is able to provide an accurate diagnosis of your eye’s condition, as well as suggest medical or surgical treatments. Their assessment of your eye will be quite comprehensive, looking for both visual difficulties and any potential damage to the structures of your eye which may be caused by conditions like cataracts (a clouding of your eye’s lens) or glaucoma (damage to the optic nerve which takes signals from your eyes to your brain). Ophthalmologists can also be specially trained to perform laser corrective surgery to restore your vision.

What is an optometrist?

Unlike an ophthalmologist, an optometrist is not a fully qualified doctor. They are however trained and licensed to examine your eyes and detect visual difficulties and other eye conditions. Their training is specialised and limited to the eye, its mechanisms, and its disorders, hence giving them a lot of experience in dealing with eye issues. In the UK the word ‘optician’ is often used to refer to an optometrist as many high street ‘opticians’ are in fact qualified optometrists. In other places around the world however, the word ‘optician’ is used to refer to a dispensing optician (discussed below) whose role is somewhat different and more limited.

An optometrist can refer you to an ophthalmologist if they come across a visual condition that is more severe, or potentially a consequence of other illnesses (e.g. diabetes). An optometrist is experienced in providing you with a prescription for your lenses and providing any subsequent advice on your options. These include, for example, choosing between contact lenses and spectacles.

Optometrists have their own regulatory authorities which set standards of good practice and provide licenses for professionals who have completed an approved 4 year degree. These include the General Optical Council (GOC) and the College of Optometrists, however it is the former that is vital in providing licenses and maintaining the standards of courses for example.

Optometrists are able to prescribe or provide medicines for eye treatments. In this capacity they are only qualified to provide eye treatments, and these can include anti-allergy medications to reduce any potential irritation an allergic reaction may have on the eye. As well as anti-bacterial drops to treat conjunctivitis, an inflammation of the conjunctiva (covering the whites of your eyes) that makes your eyes appear red as a consequence of infection. There are separate additional qualifications that an optometrist can obtain that allow for the prescription of a broader range of medications to treat more eye conditions.

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