Did you know that nearly 12 million Americans over 40 suffer from vision impairment? Eye problems are more common than some may think, but knowing how to treat these challenges isn’t always straightforward.

Many people who need eye care simply don’t know what kind of doctor they need. An optometrist vs. ophthalmologist?

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry. This simple guide explains the difference between the two so you can understand which provider is right for your needs.

Differences in Training

First things first, optometrists and ophthalmologists both treat the eyes. Both are capable and experts in their fields. However, each has completed very different training. They also have different levels of expertise and ability when it comes to treating the eyes.


An optometrist has an OD degree. This stands for doctor of optometry. This is obtained after completing 4 years of optometry school. To begin optometry school, students must first have an undergraduate college degree.

This usually takes anywhere from 3-4 years at an accredited university or college. Optometry schools train ODs to provide their patients with general vision care.


An ophthalmologist has a medical degree. They are either an MD or DO (doctor of osteopathic medicine).

Both MDs and DOs perform the same procedures. They offer the same care and pass the same licensing exams. The requirements for both medical degrees are the same.

Ophthalmologists are also required to be board certified. This means they have passed their medical board exams. These exams are taken during medical school and residency before ophthalmologists get an official license to practice.

To become an ophthalmologist, doctors must complete their undergraduate degree (4 years). Then they complete medical school (4 years). This is followed by medical residency training (another 4 years). In all, that’s 8 years of post-graduate training.

Ophthalmology residency starts with 1-year as an intern resident physician. After this, they complete 3 years of ophthalmology training at an approved surgical residency program. 

Some ophthalmologists even complete more training via a fellowship for one to two years after their residency. Some ophthalmology fellowships include training in areas like:

  • Vitreoretinal Surgery
  • Glaucoma
  • Retina
  • Cornea
  • Neuro-Ophthalmology
  • Pediatric and Strabismus

Care Optometrists Provide

General vision care provided by an optometrist ranges from vision changes, sight correction, vision diagnosis, and vision treatment and management. They also check eye orbit and systems.

Optometrists are trained to assess your vision and prescribe a treatment via glasses or other minor treatments. 

Optometrists are not medical doctors. While they can’t perform surgeries, they can refer patients to ophthalmologists who are licensed to perform surgeries such as LASIK.

Optometrists do not complete a medical residency. Optometrists go straight into practice following their graduation from optometry school.

Optometrists are also trained to give their patients vision tests and find abnormalities in the eye. If you have a stye, they can take care of it. An optometrist is able to prescribe lenses and corrective lenses. They also prescribe certain medications for some eye diseases. 

If you need routine vision care, see an optometrist. They help patients maintain and improve their vision. If your eye becomes scratched or something is stuck inside, your optometrist can perform first aid.

Diabetics sometimes struggle with vision impairment. Fortunately, an optometrist can monitor these symptoms and prescribe things to help.

Sometimes optometrists can also screen for severe health problems. They are trained to look for things like malignant melanomas or optic disk papilledema. This is important as these can be signs of an aneurysm. 

If you need regular checkups for eyeglass fittings, an optometrist is your solution. If you’ve had trouble with your vision in the past, regular visits to the optometrist are a great idea, just to make sure everything is in good shape.

Care Ophthalmologists Provide

All ophthalmologists offer care for any eye condition and disease. Those who are fellowship-trained are called sub-specialists. 

Sub-specialists have the expertise to treat the most unusual conditions. They can also take patients from certain special groups, such as pediatrics.

You’ll want to visit an ophthalmologist if you need serious medical care or surgery. They can perform surgery to correct lazy eye, cataracts, trauma, lens implants, and more.

An ophthalmologist can diagnose and treat all kinds of eye diseases as well as cancers. They can also prescribe and fit patients for eyeglasses or contact lenses. Ophthalmologists are well-trained to treat acute eye trauma or injuries that require immediate medical care.

If a patient suffers from malformed or impaired tear ducts, an ophthalmologist can repair these. They can also treat eye infections, damaged retinas, and handle corneal transplantations.

If a serious injury or eye emergency occurs, patients in the hospital will always see an ophthalmologist because of their level of expertise.

Knowing Who to See: Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist

When it comes to caring for your eyes, a little information about the different providers will guide you. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists provide some eye care and screenings. 

Keep in mind that the depth of expertise and training is different. The cost of care may also vary.

If you are still unsure of which provider is necessary for your eye care, talk to an expert. You can call your eye institute to get an idea of which kind of doctor is best for your needs.

For basic eye care or eyeglass fittings, visiting an optometrist is a great solution. You can even bring in children or teenagers for eye care and fittings.

For more serious eye conditions, an ophthalmologist has the training and knowledge to take excellent care of your eyes.  

Get the Right Care Today

Now that you understand the difference between an optometrist vs. ophthalmologist, contact Kentucky Eye Institute today for an appointment.

Our team of experienced physicians can help you receive the eye care you need and the treatment you deserve.