Who’s Who in Eye Health?

The Difference Between Optometrists and Ophthalmologists (and Other Eyecare Professionals)

Do you know the difference between an Optometrist and an Ophthalmologist? Or an Optical Dispenser and an OD (hint: they are not the same…)?

There are so many different eye health professionals that it can be a little confusing working out who does what for whom. If you have an eye problem, who do you go to see (no pun intended)?

Eye Care Professionals

Let’s clarify the main differences between Optometrists, Orthoptists, Optical Dispensers, and Ophthalmologists as well as Opticians and ODs. A number of these could be considered “eye doctors” in general terms, however, their roles can be quite varied.

Of course, there are many other practitioners not involved in eye care that will all have opinions. These can include naturopaths, chiropractors, and dietitians, not to mention Dr. Google. If you have concerns about your eyesight, however, it is best to book an appointment with an eyecare professional.


Optometrists are primary eye health providers. This means that you can book an appointment directly for any eye concern and do not need to be referred. You may be referred by another health practitioner (such as your local GP) for general eye care or a specific eye or vision problem. This, however, is not a requirement.

An Optometrist has completed an extensive University course (4 to 7 years) involving a very wide variety of eye issues and has BOptom after their name. This Optometry (sometimes misspelled Optometrie) degree qualifies them to diagnose all eye conditions and to provide vision correction such as glasses and contact lenses or visual training. Their training involves both theory and clinical skills and some are therapeutically qualified. This means they can prescribe certain prescription medications for a number of eye diseases.

As a primary health care professional an optometrist is covered under the Australian Medicare system. At maximeyes, we are also covered by all the Private Health Funds.

Optometry and prevention of eye disease

Some Optometrists specialise in providing preventative treatments, so their patients are less likely to suffer from eye disease. Prevention of short-sightedness or myopia and its progression is the most common area of preventative eye health. Other areas include dry eye, glaucomamacular degeneration, and diabetic retinopathy.

Optometrists may remove foreign bodies from your eyes and provide other minor procedures but, if major surgery or medical intervention is required, they will refer you to a suitable Ophthalmic surgeon.

It may also be appropriate to co-manage some eye conditions. This means your Optometrist continues to monitor your general eye health in between your visits to the eye specialist.


Ophthalmologists are medical practitioners who have completed further training in the diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases. These days most of these eye doctors are further specialised in one area of eye disease and/or surgical procedure.

A paediatric Ophthalmologist, for example, specialises in childhood eye diseases. A retinal surgeon, on the other hand, specialises in problems in the retinal layer of the eye. There are numerous other types of ophthalmology eye specialists. Sometimes you may need to see multiple specialists.

You need to be referred to an Ophthalmologist. It is usually simplest to see an Optometrist for a referral since they may be able to offer appropriate treatment immediately. If not, they will refer you to the appropriate eye professional, usually another specialised optometrist or ophthalmologist.


Orthoptists traditionally specialised in the treatment of eye movement defects and in training the eyes to work as a team to create good binocular vision. They will typically have completed a 3-year BOrth degree.

In recent years their traditional role in visual training has been taken over by Optometrists. Education in this role is available in their undergraduate course. Those who choose to specialise in this area call themselves Behavioural Optometrists. Many have typically undergone extra post graduate training in the area. Some also specialise in children’s visual issues and are therefore known as Paediatric Optometrists.

For Orthoptists, their role has been expanded to include assistance in the assessment and treatment of a number of common eye conditions, usually in conjunction with an Ophthalmologist.

Optical Dispensers

Optical Dispensers are eye care specialists who complete a one-year course where they learn to accurately interpret an optometric glasses prescription for improving vision. This will include advice on the best lens materials, the best frames, and coatings or tints for single vision or multifocal glasses or low vision devices.

Of course, this training is included as part of an Optometry degree. As such, any advice on these matters may be gained directly from either your Optometrist or an Optical Dispenser.


There is no qualification or course in Australia to become an Optician. Opticians are found in the UK and Europe and are usually more qualified than an Optical Dispenser but less than an Optometrist. Their qualifications are not recognised in Australia.

Doctor of Optometry (ODs)

In the USA, Optometrists are called Doctor of Optometry or ODs. Their qualifications are similar to an Optometrist in Australia but they are able to perform simple surgical procedures.

In Australia, we usually reserve the term ‘doctor’ for medical practitioners. It is, however, also a term used for someone who has completed a post-graduate PhD or Doctor of Philosophy.  This usually involves original research in some special area of knowledge.

Experiencing Eye Problems?

Seek advice from an optometrist if you are experiencing any eye or vision problems. They are the first step in diagnosis and potential treatment and can refer you to a specialist if required.

Ask a question on our website. Alternatively give our eye care clinic, maximeyes, a call or make a booking via our online appointment form.

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