What are the Differences Between Opticians, Ophthalmologists and Optometrists?

As you make a decision about the type of healthcare career you want for your future, it鈥檚 important to be knowledgeable. You can only make the best choice when you know what your options are and what different healthcare titles mean. For instance, you may be looking at a career in eye care, but do you know what the different roles of ophthalmologists, optometrists and opticians are? Learn more about these eye care professionals so you can decide on your next career and educational step.

An Ophthalmologist is a Physician

Ophthalmologists are physicians, or doctors, who specialize in eye care. This means they have a medical degree and went through all the required training, including residencies and internships that doctors have to complete. They also had specialized training in eye care and worked under experienced ophthalmologists.

The duties of ophthalmologists on the job include examining patients, diagnosing eye conditions, treating patients with eye conditions, prescribing medications, and performing procedures and surgeries on the eyes. An ophthalmologist may also be involved in research on eye diseases, procedures and treatments. These doctors may also have subspecialties in things like glaucoma, neurology or pediatric ophthalmology. See our glossary of ophthalmological terms.

Optometrists Examine and Treat Patients

There are a lot of similarities between optometrists and ophthalmologists. One significant difference, though, is that optometrists are not medical doctors. Instead, they hold a Doctor of Optometry degree, or O.D. Optometrists examine patients and perform vision tests; they diagnose conditions related to vision, such as nearsightedness; they prescribe lenses; and they provide some treatments and may perform minor procedures.

Opticians Help Patients with Lenses

An optician is a technician, not a doctor, who is responsible for helping patients with the prescriptions given to them by an ophthalmologist or optometrist. They most often work in optometry offices, helping patients after they have been examined by the optometrist. An optician鈥檚 duties include taking patient eye measurements, filling prescriptions for lenses, helping patients choose eyeglass frames, fitting frames and educating patients about how to use contact lenses. They also communicate and work with laboratory technicians who make lenses.

Differences in Training and Education

There are big differences between these three eye care careers when it comes to training. As M.D.s, ophthalmologists require the most training and education. They must have a bachelor鈥檚 degree before enrolling in medical school. Medical school takes four years to complete, and it includes classroom work and hands-on patient care in rotations. Following medical school, physicians must spend three to seven years in a residency to learn their specialty, in ophthalmology for eye doctors. From beginning to end, this education can take 11 to 15 years.

To become an optometrist you must complete an O.D. program, which takes four years. To be accepted to a program you need to have three to four years of college courses already completed, so becoming an optometrist takes seven to eight years.

Becoming an optician is more flexible. Depending on the state and the employer, you may not need to have any post-secondary training. Some opticians are trained on the job. At the most, you may be required to complete a one- to two-year certificate or degree program at a community or career college.

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Salaries and Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that all three of these eye care careers are growing. The rate of job growth for physicians is 13 percent. Jobs for opticians are growing at a rate of 15 percent, while jobs for optometrists are growing fastest of all, at 18 percent. For all three careers there will be thousands of new positions available in the coming years.

While job growth is strong across the board, salaries are very different from one eye care career to the next. Physicians, including ophthalmologists, earn more than $200,000 per year on average. Optometrists also earn a decent salary considering the years of training required. The average optometry salary is $110,000. Opticians don鈥檛 have to go through a lot of education, and this is reflected in the average salary of $36,250.

You have a lot to consider if you鈥檙e choosing a career in healthcare and eye care. Any job in this field is rewarding because it involves helping people. However, there are big differences, from daily job duties to salary and education requirements. With this information you can make the best choice for your future and your career.