Manipal Nurse Sunday Column: Optician or Optometrist

I am confused. What is the difference between an optician and an optometrist?

It’s understandable that you are a little confused as those two terms are used (incorrectly) interchangeably. In the early 1800s people received their vision care from a variety of sources including so-called ‘sight-testing opticians,’ jewellers, watch-makers and travelling hawkers. In those days it was common not to charge for the sight-testing part of the transaction, only for the spectacles. Back then, optometrists were called opticians. At that time, training for many opticians consisted of a two-week course in refraction offered by optical equipment companies. Some opticians were self-taught through textbooks or correspondence courses. In Britain, the term ophthalmic optician was used to describe persons who tested eyes ( refraction) and prescribed spectacles, and the term dispensing optician was used to describe persons involved in the fabrication of the spectacles.

In the early 1900s, the opticians began to group together and form professional societies. The professional bodies set out to lay down codes of behaviour and educational standards for those who called themselves opticians. At the beginning of the 20th century, refracting opticians sought to distinguish themselves from spectacle makers. The American Association of Opticians, which was founded in 1898, adopted the term ‘optometrist’ at its 1904 congress. The word comes from Latin roots to indicate ‘one who measures the eye.’ The association defined ‘optometry’ as “the science which treats of the physiology of the functions of vision and the physical effect thereon by lenses.”

Around the mid to late 1800s, schools of optometry were opened to standardize optometry. The earliest record of the Doctor of Optometry degrees awarded is from Northern Illinois College of Optometry in 1894. They awarded the degree of Opt D, which was shortened to OD. In the 1800s the pre-entry requirement was that you finished high school. By 1910 optometry schools began requiring undergraduate schooling before entering. The 4-year OD degree became the US standard around the 1960s.

Optometry like medicine, dentistry, etc, fills a need. The number of optometry schools as well as optometry legislation worldwide reflects this need.

Optometrists are the major providers of primary vision care. They check the eyes and visual system, diagnose vision problems, prescribe and offer treatment. Treatments include prescription glasses, contact lenses, vision therapy, aids for low vision, and therapeutic drugs for specific diseases.

As members of the eye health care team, optometrists (ODs) work with ophthalmologists (MDs) who are physicians specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases and defects, including surgery. As the primary eye care provider, it is the optometrist who is the first to detect symptoms of eye disease, including glaucoma and cataracts, as well as systemic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and arteriosclerosis. The doctor of optometry also deals with vision problems that can be remedied through corrective refraction, either in the form of eyeglasses or contact lenses. Vision therapy for children helps them overcome learning problems caused by vision deficiencies, and provides them with the perception skills necessary for effective reading and studying. Another emerging area of optometric care is low vision rehabilitation, which provides sophisticated optical devices for individuals who formerly may have been classified as legally blind.

Optometric programme curricula include general anatomy, optics, theoretical optometry, pathology, clinical optometry, psychology, physics, physiology and pharmacology.

So what is an optician then?

Opticians are eye health-care professionals who work with ophthalmologists and optometrists to provide vision services related to the diagnosis and treatment of vision problems and eye disease. They used to be called dispensing opticians. They assist optometrists and ophthalmologists in providing complete patient care before, during, and after exams, procedures, and surgeries. With a two-year technical degree, opticians analyze and interpret eye prescriptions; determine the lenses that best meet a persons needs; oversee ordering and verification of eye-related products from start to finish; dispense, replace, adjust, repair, and reproduce previously ordered contact lenses, eyeglasses, and frames.

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