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SEE CLEAR: Getting to know your eyecare pros


At your next eye appointment or visit to an optical store, it might be helpful know who is helping you. (123RF)
At your next eye appointment or visit to an optical store, it might be helpful know who is helping you. (123RF)

What is the difference between an optometric assistant, optician, optometrist and ophthalmologist?

A lot, actually, but they all have one thing in common: they all care about your vision.

Let’s take a look at some of their differences ...

Ophthalmologist:

An ophthalmologist is an eye specialist. They diagnose and treat diseases, and perform surgeries on the eye. To see an ophthalmologist, you generally have to be referred by a doctor or an optometrist — and they are usually very busy.

It may take many months or even years to see one, depending on the reason for the referral and their backlog of patients. Sometimes they will do a refraction for an eyeglass prescription, but usually they will ask their patients to return to the optometrist after diagnosis and treatment for a new refraction.

Optometrist:

An optometrist is able to diagnose certain diseases and conditions of the eye, prescribe certain medications and perform a refraction to determine a prescription for eyeglasses or contact lenses. While they are able to dispense eyewear, optometrists spend most of their time in the exam room, performing eye exams.

They often leave dispensing tasks to opticians, who devote their careers to dispensing eyewear. Many optometrists also fit contact lenses and perform follow-up care after surgeries. You do not need a referral to see an optometrist.

Sometimes a medical doctor will examine eyes and provide a refraction, but their education is less specialized than that of a doctor of optometry.

Optician:

An optician is licensed to dispense eyeglasses. Some opticians in Nova Scotia also have a designation that allows them to fit and dispense contact lenses.

For student opticians in Nova Scotia, it takes two years and 2,000 hours of on-the-job training to become an optician, or three years to include the contact lens designation. Many opticians are also knowledgeable in providing advice and dispensing low vision aids.

Not everyone realizes that when it comes to dispensing eyewear, there is more than what meets the eye — no pun intended. Each client is unique with a different face shape and size, different prescription, different measurements, different visual needs and different taste.

Opticians should be patient and spend time learning about their clients’ needs in order to help them make an informed decision. Opticians require good problem-solving skills and require a lot of dexterity to adjust eyewear. Opticians can be employed by optometrists, work in (or own) an optician-owned dispensary or work in an optical chain. Opticians can fill any valid eyeglass prescription. When a person has an eye exam with an optometrist or ophthalmologist, the prescription is theirs. They are entitled to have a copy and can compare products and services at more than one optical store or optometry office, if desired.

Optometric assistant:

An optometric assistant is employed in an optometry practice. They are able to perform duties such as preliminary testing and billing. In Nova Scotia, they can perform some eyeglass dispensing duties under the direct supervision of an optometrist. Their education includes a 36-week online course with a two-day workshop provided by the Canadian Association of Optometrists.

In a nutshell, these are some of the differences between ophthalmologists, optometrists, opticians and optometric assistants. At your next eye appointment or visit to an optical store, it might be helpful know who is helping you!

Tanya MacPhee is a licensed optician and contact lens fitter at Mermaid Vision in Lunenburg.

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