Optometrists are vision-care specialists; their main function is to diagnose, manage, and treat conditions of the human eye and visual system. Optometrists look for vision problems such as nearsightedness and farsightedness, test patients’ depth and color perception, and examine their ability to focus and coordinate their eyes.
Optometrists also prescribe corrective lenses like eyeglasses and contact lenses, and provide other treatments, such as vision therapy or low-vision rehabilitation. They test for eye diseases like glaucoma and diagnose ailments caused by diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions.
Other job duties for optometrists are prescribing medication and providing preoperative and postoperative care for patients who have had cataract or corrective laser surgery. Optometrists encourage preventative measures by teaching patients proper nutrition and hygiene habits that can help minimize the risk of eye disease.
Optometrists should not be confused with ophthalmologists, who perform eye surgery and diagnose and treat eye diseases, or with dispensing opticians, who fit and adjust eyeglasses according to prescriptions provided by ophthalmologists and optometrists.
Optometrists Job Summary
- Optometry school admissions are competitive; in 2007, only about one in three applicants was accepted.
- To work in the optometry field, graduation from an accredited college of optometry and a state license are required.
- Employment is expected to grow much faster than the average, due to the vision care needs of a growing and aging population.
- Excellent job opportunities are likely.
Work Environment for Optometrists
Typically, optometrists work in their own offices, which are clean, bright, and sanitary. Many full-time optometrists work standard business hours, with evening and weekend hours added if patient demand merits them. It is increasingly common for optometrists to take emergency calls, due to recent changes in therapeutic-drug laws that allow them to prescribe medications.
While most optometrists today are private practitioners who own and run their own offices, specialization is leading optometrists to form group practices rather than independent, primary-care practices. Some optometrists specialize in contact lenses, pediatrics, or geriatrics.
Private-care optometrists also supervise office personnel and perform other duties of business owners, like developing a patient base, keeping proper records, and ordering equipment and supplies.
Education, Training, and Licensing for Optometrists
Becoming a Doctor of Optometry involves intense study and dedication. Entering the field requires a four-year degree program at an accredited school of optometry, after at least three years of college or university education.
Undergraduate studies for those aspiring to be optometrists should include courses in English, mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. Because a strong background in science is important, many applicants to optometry school major in Science programs, like, biology or chemistry.
Admission to optometry school is competitive; applicants must pass the Optometry Admissions Test (OAT), a standardized exam consisting of four tests: survey of natural sciences, reading comprehension, physics, and quantitative reasoning. Many students take the OAT in their sophomore or junior year in college, in case they need to re-take the exam to pass or raise their score.
While some applicants are accepted with three years of college, and allowed to complete their bachelor’s degree while in optometry school, most of those accepted into an optometry program have already earned an undergraduate degree.
The typical optometry curriculum includes classroom and laboratory courses in health and visual sciences, as well as clinical training in eye-disorder diagnosis and treatment. Courses in pharmacology, optics, vision science, biochemistry, and systemic diseases are also standard.
As of 2009, the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education of the American Optometric Association had accredited the programs of 19 colleges of optometry in the U.S.
For optometrists who wish to pursue advanced training in a particular area of optometry, clinical residency programs are available. These areas of specialty include family practice optometry, pediatric optometry, geriatric optometry, vision therapy and rehabilitation, cornea and contact lenses, and ocular disease.
Licensing is required to practice optometry in every state of the U.S. Applicants for licensing need a degree from an accredited optometry school and must pass both a written national board exam and a national, regional, or state clinical exam. Licenses usually need to be renewed every one to three years, with continuing education required for renewal. Some states also require an additional state laws exam.
Optometrists must possess self-discipline, the ability to deal tactfully with patients, and business abilities. Attention to detail and manual dexterity are also very important.
Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook, and Earnings
Optometrists held about 26,480 jobs in May 2009, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) surveys. Most of these positions were in optometrist offices; the rest were in physicians’ offices, health and personal care stores, and hospitals and outpatient care centers.
Employment in this field is expected to grow much faster than other occupations, due to the growing population and increasing recognition by consumers of the importance of good eye care.
BLS reports indicate that optometrists earned an average yearly salary of $106,960 in May 2009. The middle 50% earned between $71,190 and $126,110, while the lowest 10% earned $48,240. The highest 10% earned upwards of $165,000 annually.