What’s the difference between an optician, optometrist and ophthalmologist?

I remember once while I was still in school and someone asked me what I was studying. I said that I was studying to be an optometrist and without batting an eye they looked at me and said “Oh, what’s it like to work with teeth?” So close but so far.

There is a lot of confusion out there about what we in the industry refer to as ‘The Three O’s’, perhaps better known as opticians, optometrists and ophthalmologists. Even for people who are reasonably familiar with the optical industry people often ask me what the difference is. It absolutely can be confusing but let’s think of it in a way most of us are very famliar with.

"Opticians are sort of like technicians."

Opticians are sort of like technicians. They receive an optical prescription and fill it. They are your lens and frame experts. In Alberta they take a two year course to learn how to fit lenses properly and take all the necessary and extremely important measurements. They learn all about how to adjust frames to fit your face properly as well as what frames will work best on which face shapes. They know all about things like progressives versus bifocals, refractive index, anti glare coatings and a whole bunch of other technical things that are vital to you getting the right lens. They are an integral part of  your vision care team.

In case you weren't sure, this is what an optometrist might look like.

In case you weren't sure, this is what an optometrist might look like.

"You should see an optometrist regularly to pick up any problems that are happening silently, with no symptoms."

Optometrists are like your family doctor. You have  any sort of problem with your eyes and we are the people you need to come and see. It might be a problem seeing, a red gooey eye or maybe you got something in your eye that won’t come out. You come see an optometrist and we’ll fix you up. Of course just like getting a yearly physical you don’t have to have something wrong to see an optometrist. In fact you should see one regularly to pick up any problems that are happening silently, with no symptoms.
Optometrists in Canada take a minimum of a three year undergraduate degree followed by a four year course at the only English speaking Optometry school in Canada at the University of Waterloo or the only Canadian French speaking school at the University of Montreal. They are then required to write national board exams before being licensed to work in Canada.

"Seeing an ophthalmologist requires a referral..."

Ophthalmologists are eye surgeons performing complex eye surgeries. They are medical doctors who have gone on to do even more schooling to specialize in the eye. Much like other specialists like brain surgeons, heart surgeons, kidney specialists etc you require a referral to see them. It is the job of an optometrist or your family doctor to refer you if there is an eye problem beyond what we are able to treat. For example, if you had a cataract that required surgery, an optometrist would refer you to see an ophthalmologist that specialized in cataract surgeries.

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