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Optometrists and Ophthalmologists: What’s the difference?

By Zack Steele

I am often asked the difference between the specialties of eye care. What is an optometrist? What is an ophthalmologist? What is the difference? I even get asked occasionally if a patient can see an optician for an eye exam (Carol and Tessa, my opticians, might get a good laugh from that one).

Through the years, optometry and ophthalmology have evolved into a symbiotic relationship in which the two professions work together to benefit their patients. The role of the optometrist has changed greatly over the last 50 years, mainly due to necessity. The demand for eye care as more and more patients sought it out created a gap between the amount of doctors and the amount of patients in many states, including Alabama. About 30 years ago, Alabama created an optometry school at UAB to help meet the demand for eye care

Optometrists treat eye diseases like glaucoma, dry eye syndrome and pink eye. We also, of course, find and determine eyeglass and contact lens prescriptions. Optometrists also co-manage with family doctors to monitor such problems as diabetes and hypertension.

Ophthalmologists are eye surgeons. They train to do surgery on the eye. Ophthalmologists perform cataract surgery and LASIK surgery. Ophthalmologists can also sub-specialize into different areas of expertise on the eye. For example, I co-manage patients with cataract, retinal and corneal specialists.

Confused yet? I don’t blame you. Sometimes even I can’t remember which of my specialists do what.

Think of it this way. Optometrists are the family doctors of the eye. We do yearly eye exams, or “eye physicals.” We basically handle the meat and potatoes of eye care. When a patient needs a surgeon, optometrists help the patient find the correct specialist, and usually co-manage the treatment with that specialist.

These two sections of eye care are crucial to the well being of patients’ eyes. Both are highly trained in their respective areas and work together to ensure our patients’ well being.

Dr. Zack Steele is a 2003 graduate of UAB School of Optometry. His practice, Trussville Vision Care, is located on Chalkville Road in downtown Trussville.

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