Are you confused? What is the difference between an optician, an optometrist, an ophthalmologist? And where does a medical retina doctor or a retina surgeon fit in the spectrum? If you have ever wondered about these questions; you are not alone. The good news is that all of these professionals can work collaboratively to provide the care you need to optimize your overall eye health and maximize vision. The simplest distinction is in the training required for the degree/certification and training.
An optician is not an eye doctor, and therefore they are not permitted to perform eye exams. An optician licensed in NYS is required to complete a 2-year degree program in ophthalmic dispensing. Once you see an eye doctor and have your prescription an optician can take over. They are available to assist with all areas of fitting and dispensing your contacts or eye glasses.
An optometrist (OD) must complete four years of college and then another 4 years in a professional program after which they have the title of Doctor of Optometry (OD), not to be confused with a Doctor of Osteopathy (DO), but that is another article… Optometrists are generally referred to as the primary care eye doctors. As part of their practice they can do everything an optician can do, but they also complete eye exams, test vision, monitor eye changes due to diseases that may have an impact on the eye such as diabetes or high blood pressure, they can manage and treat non-surgical eye conditions, and provide low vision therapy and/or resources.
An ophthalmologist (MD) is a medical doctor, and as such they must complete an undergraduate degree, medical school, an internship year, 3 year residency in ophthalmology. An ophthalmologist can do everything an optician or optometrist can do based on training, but most do not. Ophthalmologists offer a full complement of vision services including eye exams, medical and surgical management and treatment of eye conditions, diagnosis and treatment of eye conditions relating to other underlying disease such as diabetes. Some ophthalmologists may inject with botox or perform plastic surgery.
Ophthalmologists that perform surgery as their scope of work may complete another year or two fellowship in what is called a sub specialty. A fellowship is another certification that requires training that focuses on a small portion of to the anatomy of the eye. Since the eye is such a complex organism there are sub-specialties in cataract, glaucoma, oculo-plastics, neuro-ophthalmology, to name a few. Retina is one of those such specialties.
Both medical retina and surgical retina are fellowship trained medical doctors. Retina specialists deal with eye conditions that affect the vitreous, macula, and the retina which is located at the very back of the eye. This is a very sub-specialized area of expertise. It stands to reason that there are two different types of physicians that deal with these conditions. Medical retina physicians have complete another year of fellowship after their residency where they focused on nothing but the retina and the medical treatment of condition that affect the back of the eye. Whereas a retina surgeon completes a two year fellowship. A large part of their practice will be the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions affecting the retina, vitreous, and macula as well as other contributing disease they are also qualified to perform surgery on the back of the eye.
Clear as mud? The good news is you are in great hands. Opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists are accustomed to working collaboratively, and their staff is very adept at knowing what types of things their providers focus on. Bottom line, if you are not sure ask, and do not be afraid to ask about your providers credentials. A second opinion is a valid request. You only get one set of eyes and they need to last a lifetime. Take care.
Sherri White, RAWNY Executive Director