When your eyes are giving you pain or discomfort, you’ll want to seek out an “eye doctor”.

Find out the difference between optometrists and ophthalmologists and whom you should see for what you’re experiencing.  

What is an optometrist?

Both ophthalmologists and optometrists are specialists in their fields and must study extensively before they can qualify to practise. The difference lies in what they treat, as well as their fields of study.

An optometrist does not study medicine, but they do complete a four-year specialist oculist degree. They are trained to examine the eyes to detect defects in vision, signs of injury, ocular diseases or abnormality and problems with general eye health. They learn to refract patients – that means conducting an eye exam to assess a patient’s vision and being able to give them the correct prescription glasses or contact lenses. They also learn to pick up different eye diseases. “The optometrist handles all refractive errors that can be rectified by glasses and contact lenses where surgery is not necessary or indicated,” says Dr Jaco Maartens, an ophthalmologist/eye surgeon who practises at Mediclinic Gariep and Mediclinic Kimberley

What is an ophthalmologist?

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specialises in treating the eyes. “They learn to treat all eye and orbital diseases and systemic diseases related to the eye and orbit (eye socket),” explains Dr Maartens. Ophthalmologists can also perform surgery on the eye and eye socket, such as cataract surgery.

An ophthalmologist can only begin to specialise once they’ve qualified as a medical doctor with a MBChB degree. “After their initial medical degree, internship and community service, an ophthalmologist works in an ophthalmology department as a medical officer before writing exams to be able to get a registrar post, allowing them to start specialising for another four or five years. After this they complete a final fellowship exam with the College of Medicine of South Africa.”

Who should you see?

“There is an overlap in certain conditions and that’s why a good working relationship between the ophthalmologist and optometrist is necessary to provide the best treatment for the patient,” says Dr Maartens. However, it sometimes makes sense to see one or the other:

Optometrist. Will check your vision if you don’t have a diagnosed underlying condition. If your glasses or contact lenses aren’t working as they should, an optometrist should also be your first port of call. An optometrist can also screen you for eye diseases like glaucoma. They may also refer you to an ophthalmologist if they identify anything that may need further specialist investigation.

Ophthalmologist. Treats all eye and eye socket diseases and surgical conditions. Visit an ophthalmologist if you have signs of an eye or eye socket disease, if you need to be screened for such a disease or if you have an underlying condition that can affect your eyes, such as diabetes.

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