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Optometry and ophthalmology are professions concerning the human eye and vision. Both optometrists and ophthalmologists are doctors. Both are able to provide primary care for your visual health, such as administering eye exams, diagnosing common vision problems like nearsightedness, and writing corrective lens prescriptions. Both can make some very good money. However, optometrists and ophthalmologists have different competencies and tend to do different work. These differences mean they usually earn different salaries.
Optometry Job Description
Optometrists are doctors of optometry (OD), and are the more common of the two. Their bread and butter is providing people with primary care for their vision. Optometrists evaluate the basic health of the eye, prescribe corrective lenses, and in some cases can provide laser eye surgery. After completing their undergraduate degree, they must complete a four-year doctoral course in optometry. From there, they often go into clinical practice. When somebody goes to see the “eye doctor,” it's usually an optometrist.
Ophthalmology Job Description
Ophthalmologists are doctors of medicine (MD), which means they are physicians who specialize in the area of vision. Ophthalmologists, upon completing their undergraduate degree, go on to medical school and complete the four or more years of training necessary to become a physician, an extended internship, and then several years of residency to gain their expertise in the area of human vision. While some ophthalmologists do provide primary care services like those an optometrist provides, ophthalmologists can do a number of things optometrists can't, and this is where they tend to focus their practice, because it is more lucrative and also in higher demand. They can diagnose a wider range of diseases and conditions, owing to their wider expertise and credentials. For serious, complex, or obscure eye problems beyond an optometrist's area of competence, ophthalmologists can provide a range of medical and surgical care that optometrists cannot. Other ophthalmologists focus on doing research and teaching rather than treating patients.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 26,480 optometrists employed in the United States in 2009, and they earned a mean annual income of $106,960. The bottom 10 percent earned $48,240 or less, and the top 10 percent earned $126,110 or more. This curve is stretched on the lower end, indicating that most optometrists earn around six figures, while a few earn much less. For the price of an education in optometry, this earning power is generally good. However, private practitioners have been squeezed in recent years by the rise of low-cost optometry offices attached to large stores.
The BLS does not keep separate statistics for optometrists, lumping them together with all other physicians in the “other” category. This group earned a mean annual income of $173,860 in 2009. The salary reporting website Salary.com reports that the median annual income for ophthalmologists is $243,949, with the bottom 10 percent earning $195,864 or less and the top 10 percent earning $317,459 or more. This is well over double what an optometrist earns, reflecting the longer amount of schooling necessary to become an ophthalmologist, the greater specialization and difficulty of skills, and the smaller number of ophthalmologists compared to optometrists.
Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.