Eye care 101 – National Consumers League

Consumers have many choices of eye care providers: opticians, optometrists, and ophthalmologists. How do you know which kind of provider is right for your needs?

Eye care providers serve a broad range of patient needs, from fitting eyeglasses to performing invasive surgery, and all have different levels of education and training. Depending on the services you need, one type of provider may be more appropriate than another. In addition to the usual considerations of convenience, cost and established relationship, you should make a point to learn about the credentials, education, training, and experience of all eye care providers.

Meet the members of your eye care team

Here is a listing of the various members of the eye care provider team, what they do and their credentials. Opticians provide the most limited amount of service while ophthalmologists provide all services within the eye care continuum.

Opticians fit eyeglasses and contact lenses, following prescriptions written by optometrists or ophthalmologists. They measure patients’ eyes, recommend eyeglass frames and lenses based on the patient’s needs and can reshape eyeglass frames to fit properly.  When licensed to do so, opticians also can fit contact lenses.


  • They are licensed (required in twenty-one states) after they have earned either an associate opticianry degree (one- to two-year program), or after they have apprenticed for at least two years.
  • They must pass a licensing examination and some apply to the American Board of Opticianry for certification.  Certification is awarded after passing an exam, and must be renewed every three years.
  • In some states, opticians must pass the National Contact Lens Examination to dispense contact lenses.

Optometrists provide routine, primary vision care.They examine eyes to detect vision problems such as nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism, and diagnose eye diseases such as glaucoma. They also test patients’ depth and color perception, as well as their ability to focus and coordinate eye function.  Opticians prescribe eyeglasses and contact lenses, and in some states administer and prescribe medications to help diagnose vision problems and treat certain eye disease.


  • All states require optometrists to be licensed.
  • Optometrists must have a Doctor of Optometry degree that requires a minimum of three years of undergraduate studies at a college or university, followed by four years at an accredited optometry school.
  • They must pass both a written and clinical state optometric board exam in order to receive a license, required by all states.
  • They are regulated at the state level, and must report to a state board of optometry for their license renewal (usually every three years). 

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors who specialize in all aspects of eye health. They provide primary eye care services including eye exams and prescribe medications and perform surgical procedures, such as laser surgery and lens replacement. Using both surgical and non-invasive techniques, ophthalmologists diagnose and manage eye diseases, conditions, and disorders, and treat and repair eye injuries.


  • All states require ophthalmologists to be licensed.
  • Ophthalmologists must have a college degree (or minimum of three years of college), four years of medical school, a one-year internship, and at least three years of an ophthalmology residency (hospital-based training). They must then pass a licensing examination.
  • As medical doctors, ophthalmologists are regulated by state medical boards