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What’s the Difference Between an Ophthalmologist & Optometrist?

One of the questions which is often asked when it comes to eye surgery in South Africa is “what is the difference between an Ophthalmologist and an Optometrist?” To assist you in understanding the difference between the two roles and how they help treat ocular disorders we have supplied a breakdown of the two distinctly different roles below:


What is an Ophthalmologist?


An Ophthalmologist is an eye doctor who is a medical specialist which has focused their training on ophthalmological diseases and treatments. In South Africa their training consists of a 6 year medical school university degree with 1-2 year of medical internship in a state hospital. During this internship they are exposed to numerous medical and surgical disciplines such as internal medicine, gynaecology, obstetrics, surgery, anaesthetics, paediatrics and trauma medicine. Additionally, once they have qualified as a General Practitioner after their internship is complete the following additional training and medical registration must be completed:


  • 4-6 years must be spent as a registrar* 

  • They need to pass a minimum of two specialist exams in the speciality of choice, including their Primary Exam and Final Specialist Exam

  • They need to apply to and be accepted by the Medical Council to be registered as a Specialist 

  • member of South African Surgical Society**

  • They are also usually accepted as a member of one or two other surgical societies in the USA, Great Britain or Europe.

  • They will be listed as a specialist in all of the above institutions to which they claim membership***


*This is a medical doctor who is receiving speciality training at a university hospital under professorial supervision.

**This is done if the degree is obtained in the field of surgical medicine.

***This registration information is publicly available.


What is an Optometrist?


An optometrist has a non-medical degree which usually takes 3 years to successfully complete. There is no medical schooling or medical university training behind this degree, however they are registered in their society as an optometrist, which means that they are qualified to:


  • Test and prescribe spectacles and contact lenses

  • Check old spectacle prescriptions

  • Help clients choose the correct spectacle frames for glasses


What’s the Difference Between an Optometrist and an Optician?


A dispensing optician has not undergone the same training as an optometrist (as listed above) and is only able to:


  • Order spectacles by following instructions from an ophthalmologist or optometrist

  • Check old spectacle prescriptions

  • Help clients choose spectacle frames for glasses

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