Optometrists are the major providers of primary vision care as 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. They prescribe medications to treat eye diseases and perform certain surgical procedures. Optometrists also do testing to determine the patient's ability to focus and coordinate the eye, judge depth perception, and see colors accurately. The scope of optometry requires a knowledge of the therapeutic and rehabilitative methods used to care for the problems of vision from infancy through old age.
The profession of optometry originated following a tremendous surge in demand for corrected vision with the advent of the electric light around 1880. Early refractionists were located in jewelry stores because of the materials and craftsmanship required for the fabrication and repair of eye wear. For the profession to become established, each state had to pass an optometry bill; the first law regulating the practice of optometry was enacted in Minnesota in 1901 and the last in 1924, when the District of Columbia bill was signed by President Calvin Coolidge.
As primary health care professionals, optometrists frequently determine the presence of systemic diseases of the human body, such as diabetes, hypertension, and arteriosclerosis, that not only affect vision but are associated with substantial patient morbidity. When an eye examination reveals systemic disease, or the need for surgery, the optometrist will frequently engage in co-management of the condition, in cooperation with the appropriate health-care professional.
Optometry is the nation's third largest independent health-care profession. Today there are approximately 30,000 licensed optometrists with about 28,000 involved in direct patient care; nearly one-quarter of these are reaching retirement age. The need for optometrists will be further augmented by an increasing demand for optometric services. More than 130 million persons in the United States currently wear some form of eyewear. It is estimated that nearly one-half of the remainder of the population has the need of vision care services.
The optometry curriculum is a four-year, post baccalaureate professional-level program leading to the Doctor of Optometry, O.D., degree. Structured like the other health professions of medicine and dentistry, the first year is devoted to the didactic study of basic health sciences, including optics, and, by the fourth year, the course of study is totally clinical in nature.
The practice of optometry offers independence, flexibility, and diversity, and optometrists may choose to practice in inner cities, suburbs or rural areas. Opportunities exist in solo or group practices, multidisciplinary practice, health maintenance organizations, clinical or hospital settings, and government within the Public Health Service, Department of Veterans Affairs and all branches of the military service. Teaching and research offer added opportunities.