Who should I see?

An optometrist, an ophthalmologist or an orthoptist?

An optometrist, an ophthalmologist and an orthoptist walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Make sure you don’t make a spectacle of yourselves!”

Sorry… we can’t resist an eyewear-themed Dad joke. Plus, we’re sure that like the bartender, a lot of people don’t fully understand what these three different optical professionals do. Fair enough, too. So let’s break this down.

We begin with optometrists

An optometrist is a health service provider who examines eyes for defects in vision, binocularity and eye health.

Optometrists prescribe visual aids – such as glasses and contact lenses – to correct myopia (short-sightedness), hyperopia (long-sightedness), astigmatism and presbyopia. They can diagnose binocular vision problems, such as lazy eye, or the slightly alien-sounding asthenopia, strabismus or amblyopia. Optometrists also prescribe visual aids or exercises to help correct these conditions.

Eye conditions such as macular degeneration, dry eye, cataracts and glaucoma are also within an optometrist’s scope. Patients with diabetes should see an optometrist every 12 months for a dilated eye examination. That’s a comprehensive assessment of the retina.

Some optometrists can write prescriptions for medicated eye drops, which treat eye conditions such as conjunctivitis. If an eye condition requires surgery, or other serious treatment, then an optometrist will organise a referral to an ophthalmologist.

Patients can book to see an optometrist without a referral from any other health professional. They’re usually your first port of call.

Dresden optometrist Carina Trinh during a comprehensive eye test.

What an ophthalmologist does

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating eye diseases. To qualify as an ophthalmologist, a person must really put in the hard yards. After graduating from medical school, they then complete several years of post-graduate study in ophthalmology.

Ophthalmologists provide preventative treatment for diseases, injuries and deficiencies of the eye and the structures around it. They can perform procedures such as cataract surgery and laser surgery to correct vision problems. These people are uber-knowledgable about eyes, and we think they rock.

Many ophthalmologists also complete even more training (known as sub-specialisation) in treating specific parts of the eye or certain diseases. Sub-specialities within ophthalmology include… take a deep breath… paediatrics, glaucoma, neuro-ophthalmology, retina, cornea, reconstructive surgery and strabismus (eye turn).

To see an ophthalmologist, you’ll need a referral from an optometrist or medical practitioner.

OK, so what about an orthoptist?

Orthoptists are health practitioners who deal with disorders of eye movement, and the procedures that diagnose conditions of the eye and visual system. They specialise in areas such as paediatrics, geriatrics, neonatal care, rehabilitation, neurological impairment and ophthalmic technology.

When orthoptists work with ophthalmologists, they perform eye tests and educate you about the treatment recommended by the ophthalmologist. Some orthoptists help organise cataract surgeries and retinal assessments after a laser surgery.

You don’t need a referral to see an orthoptist. They tend to work alongside other health practitioners rather than independently.

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Got an eye problem?

If something doesn’t feel quite right with your eyes, it’s best to see an optometrist first. That’s because you don’t need a referral to see them, and they can perform a comprehensive eye examination. Give them a call if you have symptoms such as:

  • blurry vision
  • spots in your vision
  • red or irritated eyes.

If the optometrist believes you need further assessment or treatment, they will refer you to an ophthalmologist.

NOTE: If you have any of the following symptoms, please call your local optometrist or eye emergency clinic immediately. Certain eye conditions must be treated quickly to prevent long-term damage.

  • Sudden loss of vision in one or both eyes.
  • Unusual pain in the eyes, especially when you blink or move your eyes.
  • Foreign objects hitting or becoming lodged in an eye.
  • Unexpected double vision or sensitivity to bright lights.
  • Discharge or watering from the eyes that has not occurred before.
  • A new headache that does not respond to pain medication.
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