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It may sound biased, but I think it’s reasonable to say that optometrists are one of the most underused resources in the medical field. 

In fact, there’s evidence to indicate that patients often seek help from a general practitioner for eye-related issues when an optometrist could treat the problem just as well, sometimes even better due to more specialized technology and treatments.

I think the issue is that many people don’t necessarily realize exactly what an optometrist is trained to do. Today, I’d like to explore that a little bit so you can develop a more comprehensive view of how your optometrist is equipped to take care of you.

What Is An Optometrist?

Optometrist Explaining Results

One of the most common questions people ask about optometry is “are optometrists actual doctors”? The short answer to this is yes, we are doctors of optometry.

The longer answer is a little bit more nuanced.

Your family doctor or general practitioner is a medical doctor, or an MD. MDs study the human body over a period of years, learning about each system, different types of diseases, how to diagnose and treat those diseases, and more.

Optometrists learn about the optics and anatomy of the eye over a period of years, studying how the visual system works, various eye diseases, and more. A doctor of optometry is not a medical doctor; however, as ODs, we are qualified to test for, diagnose, and treat a large range of eye-related medical conditions. We can even perform some types of procedures on the eyes.

The biggest distinction is that, while optometrists spend four years learning about the eye, MDs must focus on the entire body and only get a short period of training in terms of eye health.

Diagnosing Diseases

I think some people operate under the impression that their general practitioner will diagnose any eye issues (other than the general need for glasses) should the need arise.

The truth is that in many cases, your optometrist can most likely diagnose eye diseases and issues earlier and more effectively than your general practitioner. There are a few reasons for this. The first is that, because we specialize in eye health, we invest in technology to evaluate the health of your eyes, such as a slit lamp which is a microscope for the eye.  Most general practitioners do not have access to a slit lamp which is critical in diagnosing conditions such as red eye, cataracts, or retinal changes. The second reason is that your primary care doctor will probably only evaluate your eye health if you are complaining of eye-related symptoms, or if they have reason to suspect you are having eye issues. The problem is that many eye diseases and conditions develop without causing any noticeable symptoms

When you see an optometrist, they perform an in-depth eye health evaluation as a part of your eye exam. An eye doctor is far more likely to detect eye diseases before they cause problems than a general practitioner. 

What Can My Optometrist Diagnose?

The world of eye health is pretty expansive, so this is by no means an exhaustive list, but some of the conditions optometrist frequently diagnose include:

In some cases, eye symptoms can indicate diseases that affect other parts of the body. Specific signs may eventually lead to a diagnosis of:

What Can My Optometrist Treat?

Optometrist Explaining Eyedrops

Once again, this question has a long answer and a short answer. The short answer is that an optometrist can treat almost any eye issue that doesn’t require surgery, assuming they have the appropriate technology and products to do so.

The longer answer is that different optometrists have different areas of clinical focus. Assuming your optometrist has all of the necessary equipment and training, your optometrist could offer any of the following treatments:

  • Medicated eye drop prescription
  • Eyeglasses prescription
  • Contact lens prescription (specialty or traditional)
  • Glaucoma management
  • Oral & topical drugs (schedule 1 & schedule 2)
  • Myopia control

What Procedures Can My Optometrist Perform?

We’ve determined that optometrists cannot perform surgery. But your optometrist can perform some procedures. What’s the difference?

A procedure is a series of steps a medical professional performs to help achieve a health-related goal or desired outcome. Meanwhile, surgery is a procedure that requires cutting into the patient’s tissue.

Assuming your optometrist has the necessary equipment, they could perform any of these procedures:

  • Dilating & flushing out eye glands
  • Removing gland blockages
  • Removing foreign bodies stuck in the eye
  • Treating a cut or scratch on the cornea
  • Applying Intense Pulsed Light or IPL for dry eyes

Ask Your Optometrist First

Of course, your family doctor is most likely capable of helping you with eye issues. The difference is your optometrist has specialized technology and treatment options that your GP probably doesn’t.

If you don’t know who you should visit for an eye issue, take a moment to call your optometrist’s office. Tell them about your circumstances, and they will help you determine the best course of action. 

Just remember, regular eye exams with your optometrist are the absolute best way to detect eye diseases before they cause permanent damage to your vision.

Written by Kevin Hesterman

DR. KEVIN HESTERMAN
Dr. Hesterman was born in Regina, Saskatchewan. He graduated from optometry at Waterloo in 2000. He and his wife, Rhonda, have three children. He enjoys swimming, biking, and running, having completed several triathlons. Hiking, skiing, and playing the piano and guitar are other interests. He has volunteered with Big Brothers and Big Sisters and was on the executive committee for Optometry Giving Sight, a charity raising money for third world optometry. Dr. Hesterman is currently on the executive council for the Alberta Association of Optometrists.

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