Insight on a Career Caring for Eyes
If you wear glasses or contact lenses, you know how frustrating it is when the world goes out of focus when you remove them or you need a need a new prescription. Optometrists keep the blur at bay by finding the right prescription to sharpen vision. They can also be the first line of defense in evaluating patients for conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts. Optometrists must earn a doctor of optometry degree and obtain a license before they can practice.
One of an optometrist’s main duties is examining eyes for visual acuity. He or she might diagnose nearsightedness (in which things in the distance are blurry), farsightedness (when it’s hard to see close-up items) or astigmatism (in which the cornea is irregularly shaped). As she evaluates a person’s vision, optometrists use lenses of various strengths, asking the patients which of two increasingly stronger choices offers the clearest sight.
In addition, optometrists help patients with low vision or partial sight see as well as they can through the application of various therapies. While optometrists can perform minor surgeries, they assist with pre-op and post-operative care in surgical procedures performed by an ophthalmologist, physicians who are licensed to do more intensive eye care. On the other end of the career spectrum, opticians fit glasses and adjust them.
Like that of most medical professions, training to become an optometrist takes a commitment to education beyond a bachelor’s degree. Most candidates earn an undergraduate degree in premed or a biological science before applying to one of the 20 doctor of optometry programs across the country. The entrance exam for these programs is called the Optometry Admission Test (OAT), which tests a student’s proficiency in science, reading comprehension, physics and quantitative reasoning.
In four-year O.D. programs, students take a combination of academic courses, such as anatomy, optics and visual science, along with supervised clinical training to gain experience with patients. Some aspiring optometrists then elect to complete a year-long residency program, especially if they plan to specialize in fields like low vision rehabilitation, pediatric or geriatric optometry, and ocular disease.
The final steps before practicing include passing the exam administered by the National Board of Optometry Examiners and getting licensed by the state in which the optometrist will practice. Some states require additional exams as well. To make sure they stay current, all states require optometrists to take continuing education classes to renew their licenses every few years.
Just like the intense educational program, the work also requires commitment. Most optometrists work full time, and some work weekends and evenings to accommodate their patients’ schedules. A little more than half of optometrists are employed in optometry offices, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sixteen percent work in a physician’s office, while 8 percent are self-employed and 3 percent work for the government.
About 36,000 optometrists are licensed in the country. North Carolina, Illinois, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Nebraska have the highest concentration of optometrists. As you might expect, big cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles employ the highest number of optometrists.
Years of Experience
All those years of education pay off with a high salary. The median annual pay is $106,140, but it can skyrocket to $192,870 in Connecticut or $187,800 in Alaska, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those who work in physicians’ offices can earn the most at $121,640. Optometrists living along the East Coast can expect the highest salaries. The more experience an optometrist has, the more he or she can earn.
Job Growth Trend
As the population grows older, the need for optometrists is expected to grow quickly to help diagnose a surge in age-related eye conditions, including macular degeneration, cataracts and glaucoma. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the need for optometrists will grow 17 percent from 2016 to 2026. In 2016, there were 40,200 optometrists in the US, and that number is expected to reach 47,100 in 2026.
Barbara Ruben has been a journalist for over 25 years. She has written extensively for the "Washington Post" and served as editor for an international health-care magazine and a group of newspapers for older adults. She earned a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University.