Much like choosing your physician or dentist, deciding on an eye doctor can be a tricky and very personal decision to make. Choosing an eye doctor can, however, be made just a little easier if you have the right information on the differences in licensed optical practitioners and which cater to your specific needs.
Eye doctors come in two distinct forms: optometrists and ophthalmologists. The differences between the two can be likened to the differences between a physician and a surgeon; one plays a significant role in diagnosing and treating specific types of diseases, the other has a more all-inclusive and hands-on role as a medical professional.
The more common title to hear in passing, optometrists are eye doctors who have achieved a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree after four optic-intensive post-grad years at a school of optometry. These doctors are the common go-to for standard eye exams, particularly those focused on vision loss and basic eyeglass or contact lens prescriptions. Your optometrist might also play the role of guidance counselor post-surgery, monitoring your progress in recovery after having visited the ophthalmologist. (This is often referred to as co-management.) More recently, optometrists have universally been given the OK to treat and prescribe medications to those diagnosed with eye disorders and diseases, most commonly glaucoma.
In contrast, an ophthalmologist has completed a similar amount of schooling with a specialized focus on medical school (MD) and interning at hospitals post-graduation. Ophthalmologists maintain the same purpose and abilities as an optometrist, but are also able to perform surgeries and are referred to for specific eye problems that an optometrist may not have the training to effectively treat or diagnose.
While either may be seen for routine exams, many gravitate to optometrists for common problems and leap to an ophthalmologist as a stepping stone if necessary. Those that have already been diagnosed with a disorder are best advised to see an ophthalmologist that has specialized training in treating your symptoms. One might also consider that an insurance company may be more likely to cover a visit to the optometrist over the ophthalmologist, and that not every insurance company pays for routine check-ups with the eye doctor.
For the most part, determining which eye doctor is right for you will be a personal process that involves looking at the background of the eye doctor, his specialized services, and the natural word-of-mouth you receive from family and friends. If you are looking for wide-ranged services that vary from check-ups to LASIK eye surgery, your best bet will be to research local ophthalmologists. If your needs are fewer and involve basic visual problems or disorders, you can receive the treatment you need through an optometrist for a potentially lower out-of-your-pocket cost.
The alternative option to these two types of eye doctors is the optician, which requires completion of a training program. Opticians do not write prescriptions or treat disorders, but do provide middle-man services that involve counseling in health decisions and interpretation of your lens prescriptions.
Finding the right eye doctor is a relative and personalized process that should be carefully researched and taken just as seriously as the search to find your best-suited physician. The best decisions are made by your own personal judgment following comprehensive research both online and from the advice of those around you.