An optometrist is an eye specialist who has received a Doctor of Optometry (OD) degree. Optometrists perform vision screenings to detect eye abnormalities such as farsightedness, nearsightedness and glaucoma. A large part of their job is to perform “refractions,” or vision correction exams, but they also diagnose and treat problems of the eye and visual system and are often the "go to" for prescribing corrective lenses such as contacts and glasses.
The role of the optometrist, or OD, has evolved over the past twenty years. According to the American Optometric Association, ODs are “primary health care professionals for the eye,” and can now prescribe certain medications as well as diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases that impact the eyes, such as macular degeneration, cataracts, retinal disease and ocular disorders associated with diabetes and high blood pressure. They also counsel patients regarding surgical vs. non-surgical options to determine which best suits the patient’s needs and lifestyle.
Optometrist vs. Ophthalmologist
It’s easy to confuse the term “eye doctor.” With the overlap in care, optometrists are often mistaken for ophthalmologists, who are MDs. Ophthalmologists are physicians who have graduated from medical school and are trained to diagnose, treat and manage more complex eye disease. They perform surgeries such as Lasik or cataract removal and are licensed to prescribe a wider range of prescription drugs. Very often, optometrists and ophthalmologists work together in shared offices.
To receive a Doctor of Optometry degree, students must complete a four-year accredited program after earning an undergraduate degree. In order to apply to Doctor of Optometry programs, applicants must take the Optometry Admission Test, or OAT. Optometry students study anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, optics and visual science, and the diagnosis and treatment of diseases and disorders of the visual system. After receiving their OD degree, some optometrists complete an additional year of residency for advanced specialized training.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2010, there were about 34,200 practicing optometrists in the United States. Half of these optometrists practiced in stand-alone optometry offices, while the other half worked in doctor’s offices, retail stores, outpatient clinics and hospitals. Over 20 percent of those optometrists were self-employed. While most optometrists work full-time, there is a lot of flexibility in working hours. Some ODs work part-time, evenings and weekends.
Salary and Job Outlook
Because of flexible working hours, the optometry field is attracting more women. In 2011, sixty-four percent of OD graduates were female. But, there is still a gender gap in pay. According to Jobson Optical Research, the average salary in 2012 for all female optometrists, including employees and owner/partners, was $100,730 vs. $110,571 for males. However, the future is bright for all optometrists; employment is expected to grow by 33 percent from 2010 to 2020, much faster than average for all occupations.
2016 Salary Information for Optometrists
Optometrists earned a median annual salary of $106,130 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, optometrists earned a 25th percentile salary of $81,480, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $135,180, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 40,200 people were employed in the U.S. as optometrists.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-2013 Edition, Optometrists
- Urban Optiques: Optometrist vs Ophthalmologist: What’s the Difference?
- American Optometric Association: What is a Doctor of Optometry?
- American Academy of Ophthalmology: The Eye Care Team
- Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry: Student Profile & Prerequisites
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook: Optometrists
- Career Trend: Optometrists
- Jobson Optical Research; 2012 ECP Compensation Study
Debbie Leaman lives in Salt Lake City. In 2004, she left a 20-year career in financial planning to pursue writing. Since then, she has contributed to publications as diverse as "Barrons," "Women’s Adventure," "JetWings" and "Utah Bride & Groom." Leaman is a graduate of Tufts University.