An optometrist is a licensed healthcare professional who provides primary eye care and treatment of refraction disorders. You can see them at work in many optical stores dealing with prescription glasses and contacts. Most refractory treatment are performed by an optometrist who also measure the degree of eye dioptric to prescribe the proper corrective eyeglasses and lenses.

While their training is more focused on rehabilitating and restoring a disordered visual system, they are also trained to recognize and diagnose common eye disorders and systemic diseases. But in most states and countries, they are not licensed to prescribe pharmaceutical medication and they refer patients so diagnosed to ophthalmologists for co-management and treatment.  But lately, many states have licensed optometrists to prescribe drugs for common eye diseases along with medical therapy, while in other states, they can also be licensed to perform certain types of laser refraction surgery.

Education and Training

To become practicing optometrist, you need to attend graduate from an accredited  optometry school that specializes in the refractive and primary medical care of the eye and vision.  Prior to admission to such a school, students must first complete a 4-year undergraduate baccalaureate degree.  Pre-optometry courses cover a wide range of science and mathematics and health courses that included 4 semesters of organic and biochemistry, 2 semesters of anatomy, physiology, microbiology and psychology.  Other coursework may be required depending on the specific college or university.

After completing your pre-optometry college course, you need to pass the OAT or Optometry Admission tests which opens up your opportunity to be accepted in any of the current 20 accredited optometry schools in the US where admission in any is considered highly competitive.  The 4-year post graduate course in optometry covers classroom and clinical training in such as areas as ophthalmic, physiological, and physical optics, along with human eye anatomy, ocular diseases and pharmacology, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of the visual system that includes the dynamics of form, space, color, and binocular vision, vision performance and testing.  General topics in pathology, perceptual psychology, biochemistry, human anatomy, general pharmacology, epidemiology and statistics are also taken. Other subjects may be included depending on the institution. Upon graduation, you earn an Oculus Doctor (Doctor of Optometry) degree that you can now suffix to your name.

Professional Licensing

Armed with an optometrist degree, you still need to pass a national exam administered by the National Board of Examiners in Optometry or NBEO.  In addition, the profession is regulated by state boards which specify the scope of practice that is generally different from state to state. Over the last decade, optometrists have achieved successes in expanding their practice that takes cognizance of their training in clinical diagnosis of eye diseases and pharmacology.  In all the states, they are now licensed to perform limited medical therapy that includes prescribing topicals, with 47 states allowing oral medications (antibiotics, antivirals, and oral steroids) while a few allow injections.  Kentucky and Oklahoma state legislatures allow optometrists to perform level 1 laser surgery.

A Short History

The term comes from the Greek words opsis meaning "view" and metron to mean "measure". Hence, the word literally means a "measure of what you can see."  The optometric science and practice has its roots believed to date back as early as a few thousand years B.C. with some lens artifacts discovered. According to the British historian and scientist St. Joseph Needham, the first corrective spectacles were invented by the ancient Chinese 1000 years back. More resent research conducted by Davit A. Goss, O.D., PhD shows that spectacles have originated independently in various countries, 1305 AD in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands in 1900 AD. 

In 1682, Frenchman William Molyneux published a book on optics where he stated his ideas on myopia and related near-object vision problems. And it was the pilgrim Thomas Young who is credited for having discovered astigmatism in 1829 and George Biddel Airy designed the spectacles to correct the problem using spherocylindrical lenses.

It was Edmund Landolt who coined the term optometrist in 1886 to refer to the profession as fitter of glasses.  Prior to this, there were called dispensing and refracting opticians who were later referred to as optometrists. 

The American Optometric Association was established in January 1922 and immediately after the American Optometric Society was founded.  The first optometry schools in the US sprouted late in the 19th century staring with the Illinois College of Optometry in 1872, followed by the New England College of Optometry in 1894.  The course offered was Applied Optics until 1937 when it became Optometry.