An optometrist is a doctor of optometry (O.D.), rather than a medical doctor. The optometrist is licensed to conduct eye exams, prescribe corrective contact lenses and glasses, and diagnose and treat eye disease. He or she will work through various vision therapies to treat abnormalities, and can prescribe drugs for the eyes. If surgery is required, the patient is sent to an ophthalmologist (M.D.).
Many people mistakenly believe that an ophthalmologist, as a medical doctor, is better to see for routine eye exams than an optometrist. Though there is nothing wrong with seeing an ophthalmologist, his or her expertise is in surgery, while the optometrist specializes in the kind of care required for routine eye exams and noninvasive therapies and treatments for eye disease. An ophthalmologist will normally have higher fees than an optometrist, and might hand off much of the routine exam to an in-house optometrist anyway. If a problem arises that can be treated with surgery or alternate therapies, the ophthalmologist might be more likely to suggest surgery, while the optometrist will likely exhaust other potential treatments first. Unless a problem exists that requires an ophthalmologist, an optometrist will likely be a more cost-effective choice for routine eye care.
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In the United States, a person that has completed at least three years of higher education at an accredited university or college is eligible to attend an accredited four-year school in optometry. This is followed by state board examinations, both written and clinical. The optometrist may then choose to complete an additional one-year residency to specialize in any number of areas including family practice, ocular disease, pediatric optometry and vision therapy.
Today many shopping malls have "vision centers" that offer eye exams by a licensed optometrist, while corrective glasses are made on the premises as well. Craftspeople who grind the lenses are called opticians. Unlike optometrists and ophthamologists, opticians do not require a license and cannot conduct eye exams or treat patients.
A routine eye exam is generally recommended at least once yearly. If you are experiencing problems with your vision such as blurriness, burning or stinging, dryness or loss of visual acuity, it is wise to see an optometrist immediately.