Optometrists are non-surgical doctors who meet their patients' vision needs by diagnosing and correcting problems with patients' eyesight. They're best known for fitting patients for corrective lenses, such as prescription glasses or contact lenses, although they also evaluate overall eye health and test for signs of eye problems or diseases. To become an optometrist, you must complete at least three years at an accredited college or university and earn an acceptable score on the standardized Optometry Admissions Test (OAT). You must then graduate from an accredited, four-year optometry school and pass a three-part national board examination to obtain state licensure.
What we learned in school is constantly evolving and changing. The education process doesn’t stop the minute you graduate. In fact, it starts at that point.
Dr. Marc BloomensteinLicensed Optometrist and Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry
Getting Optometry Licensure and Certification
Licensure requires that optometrists have both the education and the clinical experience to care for people's eye health. It also means they are held to a certain standard in their state, as their license can be revoked for behavior that could negatively impact their patients, such as unprofessional conduct, gross negligence, incompetence, or certain criminal convictions. In fact, most states require individuals applying for an optometry license to submit fingerprints for a criminal background check. This helps give consumers confidence that their optometrist is of good moral character. Dr. Marc Bloomenstein, a licensed optometrist and fellow of the American Academy of Optometry, said that licensure also asks about the mental status and health of physicians. Licensure ensures "that the doctor is going through the process they need to, that they are staying abreast of what's new in their field, and that they are competent," Bloomenstein said. "It ensures the public that a person that is a physician, that is fully licensed, is competent, capable, and deserving of their patronage."
Before an optometrist can be licensed in their state, they must first have graduated from an approved optometry school. This generally happens after a student completes a bachelor's degree, but a few students are accepted into optometry school after completing only three years in a four-year bachelor's degree program. Another stipulation is passing all parts of the National Board of Examiners in Optometry (NBEO) exam. Part I of this exam pertains to applied basic science; Part II pertains to patient assessment and management, consisting of 60 simulated patient cases administered over two sessions; and Part III pertains to clinical skills, requiring test-takers to perform 19 common clinical skills required in optometry including injections skills, according to the National Board of Examiners in Optometry.
Finally, the individual must pass any additional exams required by their state. For instance, in Texas, applicants for an optometry license must also pass the Jurisprudence Exam, which covers the Texas Optometry Act and the Texas Optometry Board Rules. You can see which states require additional exams here.
Maintaining Optometry Licensure and Certification
Optometrists must keep up to speed with the constant advancements in their field so they can continually improve their practice. For this reason, merely obtaining an optometry license is not enough — optometrists must routinely maintain their licensure through continuing education and renew their licenses according to their state's requirements.
Bloomenstein, who is also a member of the American Optometric Association's continuing education subcommittee, emphasized that education does not stop after optometry school. "What we learned in school is constantly evolving and changing," said Bloomenstein. "The education process doesn't stop the minute you graduate. In fact, it starts at that point. With the constant introduction of new products from pharmaceutical companies, and technology constantly advancing and making some of the things we do easier and some of the things we do obsolete, the only way to stay abreast of all that is the continuing education process."
License renewal requirements are different for each state, with some states requiring optometry licenses to be renewed annually, and others requiring renewal every two or three years. Often, the most important factor in renewal is the completion of continuing education (CE) credits. The number of CE credits required for renewal also differs by state. For example, Indiana requires 20 hours for renewal, and Delaware requires 12 hours for non-therapeutically licensed optometrists and 24 hours for therapeutically licensed optometrists. Specific information pertaining to license renewal and CE requirements can be obtained through your state's licensing board.
CE is focused on a wide variety of topics relevant to optometry, which might include "glaucoma, retina, contact lenses, infectious disease — a lot of different areas," said Ian Gaddie, a licensed optometrist and chair of the American Optometric Association's CE subcommittee. Bloomenstein said CE topics have included "new technologies, simplifying the process of exams, better diagnostic tools, earlier diagnosis for glaucoma, and contact lens-related issues." Optometrists routinely accumulate CE hours at "national meetings, major meetings in major cities, such as the Vision Expo in New York and Las Vegas, state meetings runs by state associations, and periodicals," Bloomenstein said.
Optometrists have demanding jobs that keep them busy, making continuing education difficult at times to work into their schedules. We suggest completing your course work at a time of day that works best for you by taking your classes online, if possible. Gaddie said he was a big proponent of online education for CE, but that not all states are conducive to this. "We would like for it to be more common," said Gaddie. "Every state is different toward the number of CE credits they allow to be taken online. In the state of Kentucky, it's two hours out of 20 that we need, so it's not the most effective way to earn CE here. Some (states) allow more, and some don't allow any."
The classes you will need to take depend on your state's requirements, so we recommend consulting with your state licensing board prior to signing up for online CE courses, and verifying that credits earned online are approved for your CE requirement. The Virginia Board of Optometry, for example, allows all CE hours to be obtained through correspondence.