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Optometrists, Opticians,Optical Dispensers, Orthoptists and Ophthalmologists – What’s the Difference?

There could be an occasion when you would use the […]

By Published On: 13 September 20114.6 min read

There could be an occasion when you would use the services of all the “O”s in the optical world in one day:

“I came back from a check-up after recent eye surgery by my Ophthalmologist.  Working for the Ophthalmologist was an Orthoptist, who checked my vision and measured my pressure for the Ophthalmologist.  I then went to get my eyes tested by my Optometrist, who gave me a spectacle prescription for the Optical Dispenser to make up my new glasses”

Hopefully you don’t have to rush around quite as much as that!

Whilst that might clear up some of the basic differences between the optical service providers there is a lot more to it than that. You might like to use the phrase “Optical Professional” to cover all of them, but that would be incorrect, as the phrase can cover a wide range of workers, who will of course be “professional” in their service to customers but not similar in their qualifications and training.

Optical Dispensers

Optical dispensers are responsible for DISPENSING spectacles or contact lenses received from an Optometrist’s or an Ophthalmologist’s prescription, much as in the way a Pharmacist would dispense medication provided by a Doctor.

This analogy however can’t be used totally, since a Pharmacist is required to undergo formal university training leading to qualification, whereas an optical dispenser is not necessarily obliged to – a prescription can be contracted out and not made by the business.


In Australia this can be a confusing term.  It is a term that originates in the United Kingdom, which differentiates Optometrists and Optical Dispensers as Prescribing Optician and Dispensing Optician.  Because of the confusion, Australian legislation does not allow Optical Dispensers to call themselves Opticians, as it is too easily confused with an Optometrist.


In order to become an optometrist, a person will have been required to undergo formal university training in a number of specialist medical areas.

Once qualified an Optometrist can follow one of three career paths, which might overlap:

  • Retail-Based Optometrists

The majority of optometrists work in the area of retail, with some 75% choosing to run their own business, and to this end some university courses enable prospective optometrists the opportunity of studying business models.

As well as performing eye tests, retail-based optometrists may afterwards get involved with the customer’s new eyewear fashion choice and options such as reflective and non-scratch coatings, bi-focal or multifocal lenses etc.. This is especially so if the optometrist is the owner operator or franchisee of the business, as he or she is then able to build rapport with customers.

The optometrist may then go on to dispense the glasses, completing the role of optical dispenser, even to the extent of manufacturing, though increasingly this is done through optical contractors. Therefore an optometrist can do the work of an optical dispenser, but not vice versa.

  • Therapeutic Optometrists

Some optometrists in Australia have trained in treating eye disease.  The first therapeutically trained optometrists were certified in Victoria in 1999.  This was a post graduate certificate course.  In the last few years the therapeutics course has been incorporated into the Optometry degree and the course has been increased from a 4 year undergraduate degree to a 5 year degree.  An optometrist is allowed to call themselves a Doctor, as long as they make it clear they are an optometrist and not a medical practitioner.  This is similar to a dentist.

Therapeutic Optometrists are able to treat most eye infections, inflammations, and glaucoma.  They do NOT perform eye surgery.

  • Hospital or Health-based Optometrists

Some optometrists decide to work in the health area where they have a more investigative, diagnostic and treatment approach to patients that they may deal with on an extended basis during the treatment.  They will examine the eyes for signs of glaucoma, cataracts and even diabetes (since this may give guidance to eye problems), and will often work with other doctors directly in a hospital or out-patient department, prescribing medication. They are of particular importance in the eye casualty department and in centres of large population can have the opportunity to work in a hospital dedicated to eye health.  At this point this is quite common in the USA and the UK.  It is not common in Australia, although this is now slowly changing.

When working in the health area, optometrists often consult and may even have an external facility in which they carry out eye examinations and conduct a retail business. They may also carry out eye tests for activities other than for prescription glasses typically for occupational health and safety reasons, fitness to drive, suitability to operate machinery or specialised equipment, and colour blindness.


Ophthalmologists are categorised as eye-surgeons, having studied for a medical degree and worked for a period in a teaching hospital as an intern in residence. Ophthalmologists carry out the intricate surgery of removing cataracts and implanting lenses using traditional as well as laser techniques.  Eye surgery now has become quite complicated in that most eye surgeons go on to further study and sub-specialise in certain parts of the eye.  For example if you have macular degeneration you would be better to see a Retinal Ophthalmologist, as opposed to a general ophthalmologist.


Orthoptists in Australia are trained at a university level and concentrate on eye muscle abnormalities.  The course is very comprehensive, so that they make ideal assistants for ophthalmologists in doing a lot of the computerised preliminary testing.  This will assist the ophthalmologist in a final diagnosis and eye surgery treatment plan.


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