Ophthalmologists, Optometrists, Opticians… what’s the difference?


Ophthalmologist Optometrist
Professional Education Medical
(4 years, M.D. degree)
Optometry School
(4 years, O.D. degree)
Internship YES (1 year) NO
Residency YES (3 years) NO
(Rare Exceptions, up to 1 year)
Fellowship (Subspecialty, e.g., Cornea or Retina) Available
(1-2 years, Common)
Total Length of Training 8-10 YEARS 4 YEARS
(Rare Exceptions, up to 5 Years)

There are several types of eye care providers currently practicing in the US, each serving a variety of patient needs. These professionals have different education profiles and their practice parameters are determined by varying levels of regulation.

It is important for you to understand the differences in education, training and credentials among eye care providers. Consider those differences when selecting a provider. Here is a listing of the various members of the eye care provider team, what they do and their credentials. Opticians provide the most limited amount of service while ophthalmologists provide all services within the eye care continuum.


What They Do:

  • Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in all aspects of eye health. They provide primary eye care services including eye exams and prescribe medications and perform surgical procedures, such as laser surgery and lens replacement.

  • Using both surgical and non-invasive techniques, ophthalmologists diagnose and manage eye diseases, conditions, and disorders, and treat and repair eye injuries.


  • All states require ophthalmologists to be licensed.

  • Ophthalmologists must have a college degree (or minimum of three years of college), four years of medical school, a one-year internship, and at least three years of an ophthalmology residency (hospital-based training). They must then pass a licensing examination.

  • As medical doctors, ophthalmologists are regulated by state medical boards.


What They Do:

  • Provide routine, primary vision care.

  • They examine eyes to detect vision problems such as nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism, and diagnose eye diseases such as glaucoma. They also test patients’ depth and color perception, as well as their ability to focus and coordinate eye function.

  • They prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses, and in some states administer and prescribe medications to help diagnose vision problems and treat certain eye disease.


  • All states require optometrists to be licensed.

  • Optometrists must have a Doctor of Optometry degree that requires a minimum of three years of undergraduate studies at a college or university, followed by four years at an accredited optometry school.

  • They must pass both a written and clinical state optometric board exam in order to receive a license, required by all states.

  • They are regulated at the state level, and must report to a state board of optometry for their license renewal (usually every three years).


What They Do:

  • They fit eyeglasses and contact lenses, following prescriptions written by optometrists or ophthalmologists.
  • They measure patients’ eyes, recommend eyeglass frames and lenses based on the patient’s needs and can reshape eyeglass frames to fit properly.  When licensed to do so, opticians also can fit contact lenses.


  • They are licensed (required in twenty-one states) after they have earned either an associate opticianry degree (one- to two-year program), or after they have apprenticed for at least two years.
  • They must pass a licensing examination and some apply to the American Board of Opticianry for certification.  Certification is awarded after passing an exam, and must be renewed every three years.
  • In some states, opticians must pass the National Contact Lens Examination to dispense contact lenses.

Source: National Consumers League Eye Care 101
[Certain Emphasis Added through Table and Graph (based on NCL text).]