It can be confusing to try to pick someone to take care of your eyes. It doesn't help that all of the eye care professionals begin with the same letter and sound pretty much the same. To make it more confusing, there is quite a bit of overlap in roles of eye care providers. In this article, I'll try to clarify the roles of the different professionals who can help you take good care of your eyes.
An optometrist is an eye doctor holding the degree Doctor of Optometry. An optometrist is similar to a dentist in that they are usually the primary care doctor for your eyes in the same way that a dentist can be thought of as the primary care doctor for you teeth.
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor that specializes in eye care. To continue the dental analogy, ophthalmologists can be thought of as eye surgeons. Just as a dentist will refer a patient to an oral surgeon for gum surgery, an optometrist will refer patients to an ophthalmologist for cataract surgery.
An optician is not an eye doctor, but they are often no less important in helping you to see clearly. Opticians are the ones trained to adjust and fit glasses to your particular facial structure, as well as in the production of spectacle lenses. Because the effective power of a lens changes with the angle, position, and distance it sits relative to your eye, having a skilled optician fit your glasses is a very important step in getting the most from your eyewear. Their training is often received on-the-job, but there is also a certification exam for opticians, which they may be required to pass, depending on your state.
An ophthalmic technician works under the supervision of an optometrist or ophthalmologist to assist with your eye exam. They may perform pretesting procedures, take initial medical histories, or operate specialized examination instruments. They are also quite important in providing you with great care due to their increased familiarity with the particular tasks and instruments they work with on a daily basis.
It is important to note however that the general outlines above are just broad generalizations and you will find great overlap between the professions. You will find optometrists that spend their days doing laser procedures as well as ophthalmologists that are well-versed in contact lenses. This overlap has been a source of friction and competition between the professions in the past. However, with better communication and because of increasing demand for eye care due to an aging population, this has become less of an issue.
In fact, nowadays it is common for a patient to receive services from one type of eye doctor and be referred to another type and then usually back to the original doctor again for follow-up care. And, while only optometrists and ophthalmologists are able to diagnose and treat eye disease and disorders, you will find opticians and other ophthalmic technicians that do a good portion of the pretesting and other exam procedures under the supervision of an optometrist or ophthalmologist.
Because your eye doctor, will surely have to communicate with other eye care providers as well as your primary care physician, it is important that they, whether they be an optometrist or ophthalmologist, are a good communicator not only with you, but with other medical professionals.
Therefore, I recommend that you choose your eye doctor by their experience working with your particular eye condition or needed procedure, their reputation among past and current patients, and their ability to communicate with you and with the greater medical community.