Ophthalmologist, Optometrist, Optician, what's the difference?

And now, for my close friends still reading, we can get into the difference between these three identical-sounding careers.

Joel Hunter, MD
Joel Hunter, MD
Refractive Surgeon, Hunter Vision Updated 03/30/21 11:35 AM

When I read the title of this blog, it felt like the premise of a joke. So much so, that I took the time to come up with one. So before we get into it, please enjoy this terrible joke. Feel free to share it with friends, but only really close ones, as you’ll immediately lose any friends on the fence about you.

An ophthalmologist, an optometrist, and an optician walk into a restaurant and order three waters. The ophthalmologist takes a sip, sets it down, and the optician grabs it and moves it onto the coaster. Then the optometrist takes a drink, and after she sets it back down, the optician moves it two inches to the right. Then the optician starts moving his own drink a little left, a little right, and then back. The ophthalmologist whispers to the optometrist, “What’s up with this guy?” And the optometrist says, “I think he just really loves adjusting glasses.”

And now, for my close friends still reading, we can get into the difference between these three identical-sounding careers. We will start with an ophthalmologist, because it was listed first and that’s what I am. An ophthalmologist can be thought of as a medical doctor that chooses to specialize (i.e. complete a residency program) in eyes and the structures that have to do with the eyes. By that, I mean lids, bones, glands, muscles, nerves, and brain. If that same doctor had chosen a residency in dermatology instead, they’d be a dermatologist. But they chose eyes, so they’re an ophthalmologist. If you need surgery, or have a medical emergency involving your vision, then an ophthalmologist is your best bet.

There is, however, some expertise crossover between an ophthalmologist and an optometrist. There’s a decent-size area of overlap in the Venn diagram for the two jobs. If an ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specializes in eyes, then we would call an optometrist an eye doctor. They don’t go to medical school, because optometrists had their head on straight. They knew what they wanted to specialize in right out of college. There’s a graduate program to get a doctorate in optometry, and upon completing it, you are an eye doctor — and optometrist.

The reason the Venn diagram overlaps so largely between ophthalmology and optometry is because there are a lot, and I mean a lot, of eye problems that are monitored and managed the same if you’re a doctor who specializes in eyes (ophthalmologist) or an eye doctor (optometrist). The Venn diagram doesn’t overlap completely though! Glasses and contact lens prescriptions are the specialty of optometrists, who train for years to get customized prescriptions and fittings to a perfect match for your eyes. 

Opticians are certified in a different way altogether. They specialize in the glasses (or contacts) that will actually be sitting in front of your eyes. In general, an optician has more knowledge in their little finger about customizing your glasses’ lenses and fitting than an ophthalmologist does in their whole brain. I remember the first time I asked our optician, Sani, about which sunglasses I should buy. I felt the same way I do when I ask a mechanic about what’s wrong with my car. “I know just enough about this to understand how little I know compared to this guy.”

In conclusion, all three jobs exist to help you see better. If you’re not sure which one you need, give us a call! We’ll either help you find the right person, or, at minimum, tell you a great ophthalmologist, optometrist, optician joke.

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