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What is Optometry?

Optometry Defined

“Doctors of optometry are independent primary health care providers who examine, diagnose, treat and manage diseases and disorders of the visual system, the eye and associated structures as well as diagnose related systemic conditions.”
– American Optometric Association, 1993.

This means that optometrists, as primary health care providers, are the “eye-doctor” that the majority of people seek care from first.

Optometry History

Since ancient times, people have used quartz and other crystalline rocks as lenses by placing them directly upon the object that they needed to see. The earliest known painting of a person actually wearing glasses is a portrait of Ugo di Provanza, a cardinal who died in 1262. Initially glasses were very expensive and only available to people who could read and write – the educated rich or clergy. In fact, glasses were so valued that if you were fortunate enough to have a pair, you often passed them on to family members in your wills. Obviously, there was no science to vision correction at that point in time– you just took whatever glasses were available. In later years, glasses became more available, but they were still not custom made – you just picked out the pair you could see through the best.

Eventually, the profession of optometry evolved from opticians who wanted to not only manufacture the glasses, but also prescribe them. The term “optometrist” was first used in 1886, and in 1901 the profession of optometry officially began in the United States when Minnesota passed the first optometry licensure law. Since that time, the profession has changed dramatically with an expanded scope of practice far beyond the simple prescribing of glasses.

What Does an Optometrist Do?

Optometrists perform comprehensive examinations of the eye (both internally and externally), evaluate the visual system, diagnose any problems, and then prescribe an appropriate treatment. The treatment may consist of glasses, contact lenses, vision therapy exercises, or, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the administration of prescription drugs as regulated by state law. Also, optometrists can use diagnostic pharmaceuticals to aid in the diagnosis of systemic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Because of this, optometrists are important primary health care providers, as well as, the only eye care providers thoroughly trained in all aspects of optics and vision science.

While all optometrists provide general eye and vision care, some optometrists specialize in specific areas of optometry. The areas of specialization include contact lenses, vision therapy, sports vision, ocular disease, geriatrics, pediatrics, low vision (working with visually impaired patients), occupational vision, education and research.

Optometrists can practice in many different settings. Some have private practices, either as a solo practice or with a partner or group. Others collaborate with other health care professionals, such as ophthalmologists, in a multi-disciplinary practice. Many optometrists practice in large corporate settings, such as Lens Crafters or Pearle Vision, while still others are engaged by the military, public health service, hospitals, teaching institutions, or the ophthalmic industry.

Regardless of the type of practice, optometry is counted as one of the top ten income-earning professions in the country. Data from the American Optometric Association 2022 Survey of Optometric Practice shows the average net incomes ranging from $168,193 for the primary practice of optometry to $198,023 for optometrists who own all or a portion of their practice. In addition to the monetary rewards, optometry is a very satisfying profession since, by treating a patient's vision problems, one can improve the quality of the patient's life. The profession provides substantial financial security, too, because the need for vision care in America will only continue to grow as the population ages.

Who Should Become an Optometrist?

Optometry is an excellent career for people of many backgrounds and personalities. While most optometrists have traditionally been male, in recent years the number of female and minority optometrists has been on the rise. More than half of all new graduates from optometry school are now women, and almost 13% of the ODs under age 40 are now minorities.

While a broad spectrum of individuals are successful optometrists and find their career rewarding, when the schools and colleges of optometry are interviewing for prospective students, the following are some of the qualities they tend to look for: