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Should You See an Optometrist or Ophthalmologist?

Expert Chats

Whether you’re scheduling a routine eye exam or having problems with your vision, choosing an eye doctor is an important decision. Sheila Borboli-Gerogiannis, MD, and Amy Watts, OD, from Mass. Eye and Ear explain how to choose between an optometrist and ophthalmologist.

What’s the difference?

An optometrist has a doctorate degree from an optometry school and can perform eye exams, write prescriptions for glasses or contact lenses, and evaluate and treat some eye diseases. They may also have expertise in fitting specialty contact lenses for eye conditions such as keratoconus.

An ophthalmologist is a medical or osteopathic doctor who has completed a three-year ophthalmology residency training program. In addition to performing routine eye exams, an ophthalmologist has been trained in both the medical and surgical treatment of eye diseases. Some ophthalmologists complete additional training to become subspecialists in areas like retina, cornea, or glaucoma.

Who should you see?

If your eyes are healthy and you simply need an exam for glasses, you can schedule an appointment with either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist, explained Dr. Watts. But if you need contact lenses, you’ll need to schedule an appointment with an optometrist. She recommends checking your health insurance coverage to see which provider is within your network and how often you can be seen. For example, most insurance companies only cover a routine eye exam every one to two years in otherwise healthy individuals.

If you have a medical eye problem, such as age-related macular degeneration or glaucoma, it may be recommended to seek care from an ophthalmologist. “In many cases, eye diseases are first diagnosed by your optometrist, who may then refer you to an ophthalmologist who specializes in your condition,” said Dr. Borboli-Gerogiannis.

Would you ever need to see both?

In some cases, an ophthalmologist and an optometrist may both provide care to a patient. For instance, “an ophthalmologist may refer a patient with a difficult or complicated refraction to an optometrist who can provide a careful measurement for glasses” explained Dr. Borboli-Gerogiannis.

On the other hand, “optometrists refer to ophthalmologists when patients are in need of eye surgery, like cataract or retinal surgery. Patients are also referred to ophthalmologists when they have complicated ophthalmic conditions such as severe glaucoma, macular degeneration, or other diseases, or if they develop complications from contact lens use, such as a severe eye infection.”

What if you’re considering laser vision correction?

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists can provide information and referrals for laser vision correction procedures like LASIK, PRK, or SMILE. After a complete eye exam, the patient may be referred to a refractive surgeon for further evaluation.

Where do opticians fit in?

Opticians work in optical shops and don’t perform routine eye exams. “They have unique expertise apart from optometrists and ophthalmologists. They are knowledgeable about different lens designs, prisms, and tints, and can help patients choose the best type of glasses based on their lifestyle, hobbies, work needs, visual acuity, and cost. But most importantly, opticians make sure that the glasses are made according to the prescription and that they fit correctly,” said Dr. Watts.

To schedule an eye care appointment with an optometrist or comprehensive ophthalmologist, call 617-573-3202 or request an appointment online.

About Our Experts

Dr. Sheila Borboli-Gerogiannis is a comprehensive ophthalmologist at Mass. Eye and Ear. With expertise in cataract surgery and corneal disease, she sees patients with a variety of eye conditions.








Dr. Amy Watts is an optometrist and Director of both the Optometry and Contact Lens Service and Vision Rehabilitation Service at Mass. Eye and Ear. She provides routine and specialized contact lens fittings.