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What is the Difference Between Optometrists, Ophthalmologists, and Opticians?

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If you are in need of some kind of eye care, you might be wondering which health professional to call. Should you schedule an appointment with an optometrist, ophthalmologist, or optician? Depending on your needs, you might be able to get help from any of them or need to see specifically one of them.

Though responsibilities differ and can overlap, they each have a role in providing vision care. Here’s a breakdown of the similarities and differences between the three.


Opticians make, sell, repair, and adjust eyeglasses, as well as fit and dispense contact lenses, using a prescription written by an optometrist or ophthalmologist. Their training does not qualify them to conduct eye exams, diagnose, prescribe, or treat eye conditions and diseases. Certification varies, with 22 states requiring a license to be an optician.

They can be a great source of information about eyewear features such as lens coatings and frame styles to fit individual needs, styles, and preferences. Their role is to guide patients in purchase decisions, verify prescriptions, process insurance, and in some cases manage retail aspects of an optometry practice.

Opticians often work together with an optometrist to ensure patients achieve clear vision and quality eye care service. Some run independent retail eyewear shops that can fulfill vision prescriptions. They can be a source for corrective eyewear if you have a current prescription from an optometrist or ophthalmologist.

Some cases when an optician’s service suffices:

  • Your primary optometrist or ophthalmologist office does not have a retail department, or only has in stock a limited selection of frames.
  • You are curious about transitional lenses or blue light filtering glasses and have a recent prescription from your eye doctor.
  • You break your glasses on vacation and need a repair or replacement pair immediately.
  • You want to try a different brand of contacts and your lens prescription is current.
  • You want to purchase eyewear accessories, such as extra cases, microfiber eyeglasses cloths, contact lens solutions, etc.
  • Gulf Coast Eye Institute has optical locations with wide selections of glasses styles and name-brand frames in Harlingen, Weslaco, Laredo, and La Joya.


An optometrist is a Doctor of Optometry, an O.D., trained to provide primary eye care services including comprehensive eye exams, prescriptions for glasses, contacts, and medications for some eye conditions. Many offer vision therapy and low vision rehabilitation.

They can detect signs of and diagnose eye diseases. Depending on the condition and severity, they can provide a treatment plan or may refer you to an ophthalmologist. Optometrists are capable of diagnosing and treating conjunctivitis, corneal ulcers, strabismus, uveitis, mild to moderate glaucoma, and more.

Optometrists are not surgical specialists, though in some states and depending on individual training could be qualified to perform minor eye surgeries. Most eye surgical procedures require an ophthalmologist’s care.

Give your optometrist a call for your general eye care needs, such as:

  • You think your vision isn’t as clear as it could be.
  • You suspect your child might be experiencing vision problems.
  • You are looking for relief from seasonal allergies or dry eye symptoms.
  • You are ready to change your look with a new style of glasses.
  • You want to try contact lenses.
  • You need to reorder your contacts.
  • You are experiencing eye irritation or discomfort of any kind.
  • You get an eye infection or suffer a minor to moderate eye injury.
  • You are proactive and make the effort to keep a pulse on your eye health and general health, including annual checks for any signs of eye disorders.


An ophthalmologist is an M.D., a Doctor of Medicine. They have a postgraduate medical education and extensive residency training specializing in ophthalmology – the branch of medicine and surgery for the diagnosis and treatment of disorders of the eye.

Like optometrists, they can administer comprehensive eye exams, diagnose refractive errors, prescribe vision correction, and treat eye conditions. But as medical doctors, they can also provide advanced medical and surgical eye care to treat a wider range, and greater severities, of eye diseases and conditions. Most ophthalmologists are surgeons that specialize in one disease or part of the eye, for example, glaucoma, cataracts, and retinal surgery.

In many cases, optometrists refer patients to an ophthalmologist when needed.

Some common reasons for referrals are:

  • cataract surgery
  • severe macular degeneration
  • glaucoma that is medically unmanageable
  • diabetic retinopathy warrants laser treatment
  • cornea transplant

When would you call an ophthalmologist directly, no referral needed?

  • You see flashing, or a sudden loss of vision, or the onset of new “floaters” in your sight.
  • You experience a major eye injury.
  • You are ready to move on from glasses and get LASIK treatment.
  • You are considering BOTOX© Cosmetic to get rid of crow’s feet and frown lines.

Some ophthalmology practices offer comprehensive eye care from vision exams to cataract surgery, including many of the Gulf Coast Eye Institute locations in South Texas. Whether you are looking for a local ophthalmologist, optometrist, or optician, we can help. Call Gulf Coast at 844-485-3202.

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