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What is an Ophthalmologist
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What is Ophthalmology?
Ophthalmology is a branch of medicine specializing in the anatomy, function and diseases of the eye.

What is an Eye M.D. (Ophthalmologist)?
An Eye M.D. is an ophthalmologist, a medical or osteopathic doctor who specializes in eye and vision care. Eye M.D.s are specially trained to provide the full spectrum of eye care, from prescribing glasses and contact lenses to complex and delicate eye surgery. Many Eye M.D.s are also involved in scientific research into the causes and cures for eye diseases and vision problems. (Information courtesy of the American Academy of Ophthalmology)



About Eye Care Providers....Clearing Up the Confusion
Ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians all provide eye care services. It is important to understand what each of the "the Os” is qualified to do.  A National Consumers' League (NCL) survey found that many consumers are confused about the differences among various eye care providers, the services they perform, and the training and education they must complete. 

Read the NCL's Guides

Additional detail is also provided below.

Ophthalmologists, optometrists, opticians and ocularists all provide eye care services.  It is important to understand what each of the "Os” is qualified to do.


An ophthalmologist is a physician (doctor of medicine, MD, or doctor of osteopathy, DO) who specializes in the medical and surgical care of the eyes and visual system and in the prevention of eye disease and injury.  An ophthalmologist has completed four or more years of college premedical education, four or more years of medical school, one year of internship and three or more years of specialized medical and surgical and refractive training and experience in eye care.  An ophthalmologist is a specialist who is qualified by lengthy medical education, training and experience to diagnose, treat and manage all eye and visual systems and is licensed by a state regulatory board to practice medicine and surgery.  An ophthalmologist is a medically trained specialist who can deliver total eye care: primary, secondary and tertiary (i.e., vision services, contact lenses, eye examination, medical eye care and surgical eye care), diagnose general diseases of the body and treat ocular manifestations of systemic diseases. (Source: American Academy of Ophthalmology)


An optometrist is a health service provider educated and trained by an accredited optometry college in a four year course, by has not attended medical school. The "Practice of optometry" means the examination of the human eye to ascertain the presence of defects or abnormal conditions which may be corrected or relieved by the use of lenses, prisms or ocular exercises, visual training or orthoptics; the employment of any subjective or objective mechanism to determine the accommodative or refractive states of the human eye or range or power of vision of the human eye; the use of testing appliances for the purpose of the measurement of the powers of vision; and, the examination, diagnosis, and optometric treatment of conditions and visual or muscular anomalies of the human eye.  A therapeutic pharmaceutical agents certified optometrist may treat certain diseases or abnormal conditions of the human eye and its adnexa with certain therapeutic pharmaceutical agents as specified by law. (Source: Virginia Code, 54.1-3220)

An optician is a technician who prepares or dispenses eyeglasses, spectacles, lenses, or related appurtenances, for the intended wearers or users, on prescriptions from licensed physicians or licensed optometrists, or as duplications or reproductions of previously prepared eyeglasses, spectacles, lenses, or related appurtenances; or who, in accordance with such prescriptions, duplications or reproductions, measures, adapts, fits, and adjusts eyeglasses, spectacles, lenses, or appurtenances, to the human face as as specified by law. (Source: Virginia Code, 54.1-1700)

An ocularist is an eye professional "whose work is to restore the appearance of an eye lost to trauma, disease, or a congenital malformation." If the eye must be removed because of disease or trauma, the surgeon may refer the patient to an ocularist, who creates a custom artificial eye or prosthesis. (Source: "The Fourth O in Eyecare." AMA Virtual Mentor, December 2012, Volume 12, Number 12: 950-954)


Ophthalmology and Optometry


The distinction between ophthalmology and optometry is a frequent source of confusion. In addition to the fact that both are concerned with eye care, several other factors contribute to this misunderstanding. One source of confusion stems from the fact that optometrists are often referred to as "eye doctors" although, unlike ophthalmologists, they do not have medical degrees.

An optometrist receives a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree and is licensed to practice optometry, not medicine. The practice of optometry traditionally involves examining the eye for the purpose of prescribing and dispensing corrective lenses and screening vision to detect certain eye abnormalities.


In comparison, the scope of an ophthalmologist's practice is much broader. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) who specializes in all aspects of eye care including diagnosis, management, and surgery of ocular diseases and disorders. Ophthalmologists also routinely carry out many of the same tasks as optometrists and, although there are almost twice as many practicing optometrists as ophthalmologists, about 1/4 of the nation's refractions and eye examinations are performed by ophthalmologists.

The difference between the training of an optometrist and that of an ophthalmologist underscores the difference in the range of practice. An optometrist may have only 7 years of training after high school, consisting of 3 to 4 years of college and 4 years in an optometric college. An ophthalmologist receives a minimum of 12 years of education, which typically includes 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, 1 or more years of general clinical training, and 3 or more years in a hospital-based eye residency program, often followed by 1 or more years of subspecialty fellowship.

Beyond refractive errors, optometrists have limited exposure in training to patients with eye disorders or health problems. Didactic training in medical, pharmaceutical and ocular subjects averages approximately one year. In contrast, ophthalmologists have a full medical education, followed by extensive clinical and surgical training in ophthalmology, with thousands of hours devoted to care and treatment of sick patients.

The ophthalmologists residency training includes:

  • Medical eye treatment and disease diagnosis of 3000 to 5000 patients.
  • A minimum of 400 hours in basic and clinical science study related to eye disease and treatment, including prescribing eyeglasses and contact lenses.
  • From 60 to 70 hours per week giving total care to medical and surgical eye patients, including eye disease treatment, surgery for cataracts, strabismus, corneal disease, retinal and vitreous disease, oculoplastics, and trauma, under the supervision of top medical university professors.
  • Intensive in-hospital training in eye emergencies, eye and facial trauma, the coordination of care with other medical specialists in the management of system disease. (Source - American Academy of Ophthalmology)

For more information about the Virginia Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons, click here.


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