When patients walk through the doors of an eye care specialist’s office, they are looking for a health care professional who can address and treat his or her health concerns in the most effective way possible. Going to the eye doctor is a common annual appointment, but whether you see an optometrist, or an ophthalmologist will depend on your specific needs and course of treatment.

Rafael Trespalacios, MD, Lead Surgeon and Medical Director of Brevard Eye Center, explains that there are differences in the training of optometrists and ophthalmologists, as well as what conditions each provider can diagnose and treat. He also illustrates why a cooperative approach to each patient’s treatment between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist ensures the best possible result.

“Any good doctor is going to develop an individual eye care plan for a patient that can achieve the best outcome with the least invasive method of treatment possible,” Dr. Tres said. “So, for many patients seeking primary vision care – including sight testing, correction and management of vision changes, as well as the prescription of medications for certain eye diseases – those needs can be met by an optometrist.” An optometrist is not a medical doctor (MD) but rather has earned a Doctor of Optometry degree (OD) with at least three additional years of optometry school after college.

An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor who has completed at least eight years of medical school training and can perform eye surgery, treat all eye diseases and correct vision problems. Dr. Tres is one of very few ophthalmologists to pursue further fellowship training and specialize in a particular area of surgical eye care – he chose to dedicate an extra year of study to cataracts and consultative ophthalmology. This added training for ophthalmologists prepares them to treat more complex conditions in certain areas of the eye or specific groups of patients.

Dr. Tres believes that optometrists and ophthalmologists are at their best when they work closely together to best serve the individual needs of their patients. “At Brevard Eye Center, we follow this cooperative care model where – as the ophthalmologist here – I work closely with each optometrist so we can provide the best level of care for each patient at every stage of treatment,” Dr. Tres said. “So, if one of the optometrists has been working with a patient with glaucoma, they may be treating that disease with eye drops. If the glaucoma progresses to the point that the patient needs a surgical laser procedure, they will refer him or her to me so I can perform the treatment and follow up.”

“After that, the patient will see the optometrist again for monitoring, until they need something like incisional surgery in the future, when I will treat them again,” he continued. “It’s highly beneficial to have this collaborative approach between a team of optometrists and an ophthalmologist, because we all know the patient’s history and can provide a seamless transition between different levels of care depending on what each patient needs at any given time.

“Every disease process is a story,” he continued, “and there are multiple points of intervention. Sometimes those points are best served by an optometrist, and sometimes by an ophthalmologist. It’s up to us as health care professionals to work cooperatively so our patients have the best outcomes.”

Cooperative care between specialties goes beyond the treatment of glaucoma, encompassing every area of eye health. It is an approach to treatment that emphasizes the strengths of each providers’ training and the importance of providers working together to best meet the needs of the patient. The cooperative care model, Dr. Tres explained, is not a rigid structure, but rather a “fluid transition between specialties as the care for the condition necessitates to provide optimal patient care.”