Though eyeballs, eye sockets and optic nerves are small compared to many other parts of the human body, their importance looms large when a person experiences vision impairment and fears that they will completely lose their ability to see.
At such times, an optometrist may be able to diagnose the problem and restore a person’s sight. Sometimes the solution is a pair of contact lenses or glasses, and in other cases there may be a pharmaceutical remedy.
Preventing blindness and counteracting eye diseases and disorders is a significant responsibility, so every aspiring optometrist needs training before entering the profession.
Dr. Howai Jenny Chan, an optometrist and owner of Clarity Eye Care optometry practice in Baltimore, says that an eye exam can reveal health ailments such as diabetes and high blood pressure that are affecting a person’s entire body.
“Your eyes are like a window into your overall systemic health,” she says.
How Optometrists Compare to Ophthalmologists and Opticians
One important thing to know about optometrists is that they are different from ophthalmologists, who are eye surgeons. Ophthalmologists can surgically address advanced glaucoma, cataracts and retinal detachments, Dr. Robert C. Layman, president of the American Optometric Association, wrote in an email.
“So, think of the optometrist as the internist of the eye, diagnosing and treating early disease and the ophthalmologist as the surgeon treating more advanced diseases of the eye,” he explains.
Layman acknowledges that there is some crossover between the tasks that ophthalmologists and optometrists perform, since ophthalmologists frequently conduct vision tests and prescribe corrective lenses just as optometrists do.
Also, optometrists have more autonomy and authority than opticians, Layman adds, noting that opticians cannot diagnose or treat eye problems.
“Opticians are technicians trained to design, verify and fit eyeglass lenses and frames, contact lenses, and other devices to correct eyesight,” he says. “They use prescriptions supplied by ophthalmologists or optometrists, but do not test vision or write prescriptions for visual correction.”
Optometrists typically earn six-figure salaries. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual compensation reported by US optometrists in 2020 was $118,050.
Steps to Becoming an Optometrist
Optometry is a technical and complicated academic discipline that requires a professional doctorate in addition to a bachelor’s degree. To qualify for admission into optometry school, someone usually needs to complete a significant amount of undergraduate coursework focusing on science subjects like anatomy, biology, organic chemistry and physics.
Optometry school last four years. Some optometry school grads choose to pursue a one-year residency concentrating on a specific skill set, such as vision rehabilitation or vision therapy.
Here is a list of tasks that experts say future optometrists should complete in order to join and stay in the profession.
- Take all college classes necessary for admission into optometry school. Future optometrists generally major in a science field as undergrads, though doing so is not mandatory, experts say.
- Earn a high undergraduate GPA. Solid grades are necessary to be competitive for admission into optometry school, experts suggest.
- Perform well on the Optometry Admission Test. This multiple-choice exam measures a person’s understanding of natural science and physics, and it also assesses skills in quantitative reasoning and reading comprehension. The test is scored from 200 to 400.
- Shadow at least one optometrist. Optometry schools want to ensure that applicants are familiar with the work that optometrists do and have determined that they would enjoy this type of career, Chan explains.
- Get accepted into an accredited optometry school. “It’s not easy to get into schools,” Chan says. “There aren’t that many optometry schools in the whole country.” The Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry website lists 23 US member schools, one of which is in Puerto Rico.
- Take and pass four years of optometry courses. “In optometry school you will learn about basic anatomy and physiology in your first year,” Miami-based optometrist Dr. Kelli Conesa explained in an email. “Second and third year focuses more on clinical skills and diagnosis and treatment. You will cover topics such as glaucoma and ocular health.”
- Receive an optometry degree from a reputable school. Layman says optometry school curricula are adjusted frequently to account for innovation within the profession.
- Consider doing a clinical residency focusing on a specialty area like ocular disease. Layman notes that many optometrists choose to complete a residency.
- Pass the National Board of Examiners in Optometry test. This multi-part exam is meant to assess the competence of potential optometrists, and results on this test are among multiple factors that affect eligibility for a professional optometry license.
- Find out if your state requires any other exam. If so, ace it. Some jurisdictions have a local clinical or law test that supplements the national board exam.
- Get a license to practice optometry in your region. Such a license is required for the profession, but the fees and procedures associated with it vary from state to state.
- Maintain your optometry license through continuing education courses. Such courses are available on numerous websites, including the sites of optometry schools.
- Think about securing board certification from the American Board of Optometry. Though such a certification is optional, it is one way to bolster your credibility as a health care provider and increase you marketability.
Types of Optometrists and What Optometrists Do
There are multiple kinds of optometrists, including some who focus on providing primary care and others who cater to hospital patients. Some optometrists see patients of a variety of ages while others serve patients from a particular age demographic. For instance, pediatric optometrists diagnose and treat eye issues that affect children.
An optometrist assesses the condition of a patient’s eyes and measures clarity of vision. If the optometrist discovers issues that need to be addressed, he or she could write a prescription for eyewear or medicine. If the diagnosis is especially severe or warrants major surgery, the optometrist may refer a patient to a specialist whose area of expertise aligns with the patient’s concern.
Pros and Cons for the Field of Optometry
Dr. Brad Brocwell, an optometrist and vice president of clinical operations for Now Optics, an optical retail company, says empathy is necessary for a career in optometry.
“As optometrists, we are at the front line of vision care,” he says. “We have the ability to make a difference in someone’s life on a daily basis. We are there, in the office daily, to see those results with our own eyes, and that is extremely rewarding.”
Chan notes that sometimes conflicts arise between ophthalmologists and optometrists, who debate what the responsibilities of each profession should be and where the dividing lines between their jobs ought to be set.
“In many states, sometimes it can be a head-to-head legislative kind of battle,” she says. “But many ophthalmologists, around here at least, have been very cooperative, and that’s something I really wanted to shine light on and really appreciate.”
Layman explains that the scope of practice for optometrists varies depending on where they work, since state legislatures set rules about what optometrists can and cannot do with their licenses. “Some states have a broader scope of practice than others, enabling you to provide more of the services you will train for in school. Some less,” he says.
Optometrists provide screenings that can reveal serious health problems, Layman emphasizes.
“Each day, America’s primary eye health care providers examine asymptomatic patients who come in for comprehensive eye examinations, only to then diagnose them with serious eye and health issues ranging from glaucoma and macular degeneration to STDs, brain tumors, diabetes, and other conditions. “