An optometrist is a health care professional who provides primary eye care services, including comprehensive eye health and vision examinations, diagnosis and treatment of eye diseases and vision disorders, prescribing of glasses, contact lenses, vision therapy, and medications, performing minor surgical procedures, and counseling patients regarding their vision needs. While examining a patient’s eyes, optometrists may also identify signs of diseases and conditions that affect the entire body. Approximately 34,000 optometrists are licensed to practice in the United States.
Optometrist Career History
Modern optometry is derived from the work of a number of Europeans in the 19th century who were interested in measuring the eye and in inventing instruments for testing sight. Research in physics, mathematics, and optics helped early optometrists make significant discoveries. As research progressed, professional organizations were formed to gain legal recognition for optometry and to establish education programs for optometrists.
Two particular landmarks in the development of the profession of optometry are noteworthy. A national association of optometrists was first formed in 1897. In 1901, Minnesota passed the first state law regulating the practice of optometry. Today, every state as well as the District of Columbia has such a law. The number of optometrists has continued to grow to meet the demands of the increasing population in the United States.
Optometrist Job Description
Optometrists are primarily concerned with examining eyes and performing other services to safeguard and improve vision. To do this, they use special tests and instruments to identify and evaluate eye health, including visual acuity, depth and color perception, and ability to focus and coordinate the eyes. They prescribe what should be done to correct vision problems, which may include prescriptions for eyeglasses, contact lenses, vision therapy, or therapeutic drugs. They diagnose eye diseases caused by systemic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Optometrists refer these patients to other specialists.
Optometrists are one of three professional groups involved in treatment of the eyes. Ophthalmologists are licensed physicians with specialized training in medical and surgical care of the eyes. They prescribe drugs, perform minor and major surgery, diagnose and treat eye diseases, and prescribe lenses and exercises. Opticians use the prescriptions provided by ophthalmologists and optometrists to grind lenses, assemble the eyeglasses, and fit and adjust lenses and frames.
Some optometry specialties include work with the elderly, children, or visually impaired individuals who need specialized vision devices, treatment of workplace injuries, contact lenses, sports vision assistance, or vision therapy. Some optometrists teach optometry, conduct research, or specialize in consultations.
Most optometrists are in general practice. Those who have private practices must also handle the business aspects of running an office, such as developing a patient base, hiring employees, keeping records, and ordering equipment and supplies. Optometrists who operate franchise vision care businesses may also have some of these duties.
Optometrist Career Requirements
If you are interested in pursuing an optometry career, follow a college preparatory schedule, with an emphasis on math and science. Because optometrists typically run their own businesses, a background in business and accounting is also helpful.
Three years of college plus four years in a school or college of optometry is the minimum requirement for becoming an optometrist. The first three years of college are generally devoted to coursework in mathematics, physics, biology, and chemistry, as well as the other general education subjects studied by students in colleges of liberal arts and sciences.
In order to be accepted in optometry school, applicants must pass the Optometry Admission Test, which measures general academic ability and science comprehension. Optometry programs are devoted to laboratory, classroom, and clinical work and are accredited by the American Optometric Association. There are 19 accredited schools in the United States and Canada.
Upon completion of study, graduates receive the doctor of optometry (O.D.) degree. Some optometrists pursue further study leading to a master’s degree or doctorate in physiological optics or other fields.
Certification or Licensing
Before individuals can practice as optometrists, they must secure a license in the state in which they wish to practice. Licensing applicants must have graduated from an accredited school or college of optometry and pass a written test administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry and a separate clinical exam. Examinations generally cover the following subjects: ocular anatomy, ocular pathology (disease), optometric methods, theoretical optometry, psychological optics, physical and geometrical optics, physiological optics, physiology, and optometrical mechanics. In all states as well as the District of Columbia, optometrists must earn continuing education credits in optometry to renew their licenses.
Prospective optometrists must be able to get along well with people, since growth of their practice often depends on customer referrals. Optometrists must also have mechanical aptitude and good vision and coordination. These characteristics are essential to the training required to become licensed.
Exploring Optometrist Career
It is difficult for students to gain any direct experience on a part-time basis in optometry. The first opportunities afforded students generally come in the clinical phases of their training program. Interested students, however, can visit an optometrist’s office and talk to an experienced optometrist. Part-time or summer work for a vision care business or in an optometrist’s practice will also expose you to the work environment and routines.
Currently, there are approximately 34,000 licensed optometrists working in the United States. Most are employed in private practice, but others work in health clinics, hospitals, outpatient care centers, the armed forces, and schools and colleges of optometry.
There are several ways of entering the field of optometry once an individual has a license to practice. Most optometrists set up their own practices or purchase an established practice. Other beginners serve as associates to established optometrists until they gain enough experience and financial resources to establish their own practices. Some work in health maintenance organizations (HMOs). Optometrists also can start their careers at government-supported clinics or in the armed forces. Some students of optometry earn their doctorates and go directly into research and teaching in schools and colleges of optometry.
Optometrists may advance in their profession by specializing in one area. They can also advance from the position of associate optometrist to establish their own practice.
Optometrists in good standing are eligible for membership in the American Optometric Association, which is the major professional organization for optometrists. Optometrists who meet stringent requirements are also eligible for membership in the American Academy of Optometry. Optometrists also hold membership in state and local optometric societies.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median annual salary of optometrists was $88,410 in 2004. Salaried optometrists working in offices of other health practitioners earned a median salary of $93,920 in 2005. According to Salary.com, in 2006 optometrists reported average salaries ranging from $87,581 to $102,404 with the median salary of $93,686. Optometrists who accept salaried positions with clinics and government agencies generally have higher earnings in the first few years than do private practitioners. This situation, however, often changes after the private practitioners have had an opportunity to establish themselves.
Optometrists generally have excellent working conditions. They usually work in their own offices and are free to set their own hours and arrange their vacations and free time. The optometrist usually works in quiet surroundings and is seldom faced with emergencies. Although most optometrists still have solo practices, some have chosen to work in partnerships or teams to alleviate the rising cost of establishing a business and repayment of school loans.
Optometrist Career Outlook
Employment for optometrists is expected to grow faster than the average through 2014. The demand for eye care services will become greater as people continue to become more health conscious. Also, people are more likely to seek such services because they are better able to pay for them as a result of higher income levels, the growing availability of employee vision care plans, and Medicare coverage for optometry services. Increased use of computers by people of all ages appears to lead to eyestrain and aggravated vision problems, creating more need for vision assistance. In addition, a growing elderly population—the group most likely to need eyeglasses— also will keep demand strong. Some of the needed eye care will be provided by physicians who specialize in the treatment of the eyes (ophthalmologists). But there will be more than ample opportunity for optometrists to supply a substantial amount of service. Employment growth will be offset somewhat by productivity gains (in the form of more support staff assistance) that allow for optometrists to see more patients.