Choosing an eye care provider is an important health decision. After all, you will put your trust in your eye care professional to protect your precious sense of sight and help you maintain a lifetime of good vision.
The first step in your decision is to understand that there are two types of eye care professionals: optometrists and ophthalmologists. And there is a third "O" among visual healthcare providers: the optician.
An optometrist is an eye professional who has received a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. Optometrists check the eyes for vision and health problems, and correct refractive errors by prescribing glasses and contact lenses. Some optometrists also provide low vision care and vision therapy.
Optometrists in the United States are also licensed to prescribe medications for the treatment of certain eye diseases and problems. The scope of medical care that optometrists can provide is determined by state law. (For details on the scope of professional practice for optometrists where you live, visit the website of your state's commission of optometry)
Optometrists may also participate in pre and post-surgery care if the surgery was performed by an ophthalmologist. With some exceptions, optometrists in the United States are not qualified or licensed to perform surgery.
In general, an optometrist must complete a four-year extension college bachelor of science program plus four years of postgraduate professional training in optometry college. Therefore, the education requirements of an optometrist are similar to those of a dentist.
Like ophthalmologists, optometrists are required to undergo mandatory ongoing training on an ongoing basis to retain their license and stay current with the latest standards for medical vision care.
An ophthalmologist is a physician of medicine (MD) or a physician of osteopathic medicine (DO) who specializes in the care of the eyes and vision. Ophthalmologists are trained to perform eye exams, diagnose and treat disease, prescribe medications, and perform eye surgeries. They can also write prescriptions for glasses and contact lenses.
Generally, ophthalmologists complete four years for a college degree, four years of medical school, one year of internship, and a minimum of three years of inpatient residency in ophthalmology.
So (to extend the analogy to dentistry), while the education of an optometrist is similar to that of a general dentist, the education and training of an ophthalmologist is more similar to that of an oral surgeon.
An optician is not an eye doctor, but his importance lies in the fact that he is an important part of your vision care team. Opticians use prescriptions issued by an optometrist or ophthalmologist to fit and sell glasses and other related products.
In some states, opticians must complete a training program in the field of optics and must be licensed. Other states do not require opticians to receive formal training or licensure. Some states allow opticians to fit contact lenses, usually after completing a certification program.
If your eyes are healthy and do not require specialized medical or surgical treatments, the type of doctor you choose for a routine eye exam is a matter of personal preference.
Both optometrists and ophthalmologists perform routine eye exams, and both types of eye health professionals are trained to detect, diagnose, and manage eye diseases that require medical and other treatments.
If you already have an eye medical problem, such as glaucoma, macular degeneration, or cataracts, it is important to be seen by an eye professional who is highly trained and skilled in monitoring and treating your condition. In many cases, this may mean that medical or surgical eye care by a qualified ophthalmologist is the best option. In such cases, your optometrist (or ophthalmologist in general) may refer you to a colleague who specializes in treating your disorder.
Many optometrists offer medical treatment for common eye problems (such as dry eyes and eye infections ) and certain chronic eye diseases (such as glaucoma). Other specific eye disorders require treatment by an ophthalmologist, particularly if surgery or other specialized care is required.
Ophthalmologists are eye care physicians licensed to perform eye surgery.
In many cases, a team of an optometrist and an ophthalmologist can provide the care you need for a specific eye problem. This arrangement is called joint management.
In joint management, your primary eye doctor (usually an optometrist) refers you to a specialist (usually an ophthalmologist) for a definitive diagnosis and plan for treatment. The ophthalmologist may choose to manage the problem medically, perform eye surgery, or both. After the condition is controlled or treated surgically, the specialist refers you to your primary care physician, who continues to control the disorder or perform post-operative care based on the specialist's recommendations.
Co-management is a particularly good solution if you are very satisfied with the quality of eye care you are receiving from your primary eye care physician, but want an experienced specialist to treat you for any specific eye medical conditions.
If you have vision insurance or a health insurance policy that covers eye care, one factor in deciding on an eye care professional is determining if they are a licensed provider under your insurance plan, and which one. it will be your out-of-pocket expense to cover the exam.
In general, you can get this information by calling the doctor's office and providing your insurance information. Many insurance companies also publish a directory of vision professionals who accept vision-related plans on their websites.
Most optometrists and ophthalmologists who provide general eye care for the whole family accept Medicare for older patients. But know that while Medicare covers your visits to an eye care professional for medically necessary eye care, it doesn't cover routine eye exams.
If you have Medicare coverage and you have a routine eye exam just to check and update your glasses prescription, paying for the exam will be your responsibility unless you have a private vision insurance policy that covers these exams. But if you are eligible for Medicare and have a pre-existing eye problem such as cataracts or macular degeneration, part of your comprehensive eye exam may be covered. Ask your eye health professional for more details.
Also, when you call an eye care professional's office, learn how they handle insurance claims. Will you have to pay for the exam and then submit the claim to your insurance company yourself, or will the office bill your insurance company for the exam, so no payment is required from you?
If you don't have an insurance policy that covers eye care, find out the eye care professional's fees for a routine exam and any tests you may need. Although you should not choose a professional solely on the basis of cost, it is a factor to consider.
When inquiring about the services an eye care professional offers, ask what would happen if a problem is detected that requires treatment outside of the scope of your care. What medical and surgical specialists are patients referred to, and where is the office located?
Finally, a critical factor that you should consider when choosing an eye health professional is the recommendation of that doctor from friends, family, or work colleagues. Word-of-mouth recommendations are the best way to find a friendly, competent, and committed eye care physician, and to avoid unpleasant surprises when you go for an eye exam.
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