What is an Eye Doctor?

By Michael J. Dodd, MD

Even today there is confusion in the mind of the public about exactly what an eye doctor is. In this brief article I will outline the definition of the three types of “eye care providers,” sometimes referred to as the three “Os.”

First I will discuss the optician. An optician is a specialist who dispenses glasses and in some cases, contact lenses. An optician is analogous to a pharmacist who dispenses drugs based on a prescription from a physician.  Ophthalmologists or optometrists write the glasses prescription for the optician to fill. The optician assists the patient with choosing a frame and makes sure that the frames will fit well and the optical centers of the lenses will be centered over the patient’s pupils. Most opticians are trained by other opticians in a guild-type system. After a certain number of years under supervision and a study program, opticians can take a certifying exam. Maryland offers a certifying exam, but Maryland does not require that an individual be certified to sell glasses. Most opticians work in private optical shops or large national chain stores.

Next, optometrists. Optometrists attend optometry school after four years of college. After the four-year training program in optometry school, the degree of doctor of optometry is awarded. Optometrists then obtain a license in the state where they work. Some graduates will take an additional year of training in a clinic to learn sub-specialty care like post-op cataract management. The license varies from state to state, but most optometrists are licensed to perform eye exams, diagnose eye conditions, sell glasses and measure for and dispense contact lenses.

The final eye specialist is the ophthalmologist. To become an ophthalmologist you must complete four years of undergraduate college, and then go to four years of medical school. After medical school and passing a qualifying exam, a license to practice medicine is given by the state. Then one year of post graduate training in a certified hospital is required. This is the traditional internship year where the time is dedicated to learning general medicine in a variety of areas such as surgery, obstetrics, pediatrics, etc.  Following internship, to become an ophthalmologist, one must complete a three-year post-graduate training program in a hospital. In these three years, the physician learns to use all the specialized eye equipment, to diagnose and treat eye conditions and to perform eye surgery.

In summary, ophthalmologists are medical doctors (MDs) who diagnose and treat eye diseases with medicine and surgery. Optometrists (ODs) examine eyes and dispense glasses and contact lenses. Opticians fill prescriptions for and sell glasses. Some group practices include all three specialists or various combinations. For example, the Maryland Eye Associates group has four ophthalmologists, one optometrist and three opticians. Be sure to ask your eye care provider which profession he or she is a member of, if you are uncertain.

Dr. Dodd, an ophthalmologist, practices at Maryland Eye Associates located in Annapolis and Prince Frederick. He also is an instructor at the University of Maryland Department of Ophthalmology. He can be reached at 410.224.4550 or [email protected]

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