Clearing the Confusion: Can Optometrists Prescribe Medicine and Write Prescriptions?
Optometrists are healthcare providers for the eyes and visual system, but their scope of practice varies from state to state. Find out more here.
Choosing the right eye care professional for your eye health is essential. There are two types of eye doctors: optometrists and ophthalmologists.
Both play crucial roles in safeguarding our eye health, but their capabilities and specialties can differ significantly, especially in the realm of prescribing medication.
Understanding the roles of these two professions and knowing who can prescribe which types of medications, and to what extent, is imperative for effective eye care management.
Misunderstandings about this can lead to delays in treatment or inappropriate health care.
Optometrists vs. Ophthalmologists
First, let’s discuss the differences between an optometrist and an ophthalmologist.
An optometrist, also known as a Doctor of Optometry (OD), is a healthcare professional trained in a medical school for an additional four years after completing a pre-med bachelor’s degree.
They are typically authorized to examine the visual system, diagnose various eye conditions, and dispense and/or prescribe corrective and contact lenses.
In addition, depending on the jurisdiction, an optometrist may prescribe a range of eye medicines, such as oral medications. More on that later.
However, it’s worth noting that their scope of practice does not typically extend to performing complex eye surgery.
An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor (MD) or an osteopathic doctor (DO) specializing in eye and vision care. Compared to an optometrist, they spend more years of education and residency training—at a minimum, around 12 years total.
Ophthalmologists are equipped to provide comprehensive eye care services. They are qualified to perform eye exams, diagnose and treat diseases, prescribe a wider range of medications, and carry out eye surgeries.
It’s important to note that ophthalmologists can delve into specialized subfields, ranging from pediatric ophthalmology to ocular oncology, requiring additional years of fellowship training.
Understanding Optometrists’ Scope of Practice
The scope of practice for optometrists can vary significantly depending on the jurisdiction. The State Boards of Optometry regulate optometry services and procedures in each US state.
Generally speaking, in most states, optometrists are legally authorized to:
- Examine eyes for defects and diagnose refractive errors (e.g., nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism)
- Dispense and/or prescribe corrective lenses (i.e., prescription eyeglass or contact lens)
- Treat and examine eye infections (e.g., pink eye, sty, uveitis, different types of bacterial infections, etc.)
- Treat and examine eyes for ocular diseases (e.g., glaucoma, macular degeneration, cataracts, dry eye syndrome, etc.)
- Provide and create a treatment plan for vision therapy to correct eye coordination disorders
- Prescribe a limited range of eye medication
- Perform pre- and post-operative care
It is important to note that optometrists are typically trained in the full scope of practice in optometry school. However, due to state regulations, their capabilities may be limited to only a subset of the above procedures.
As of this writing, the following states are allowed to have full-practice authority:
It’s worth checking with your local optometry board about the precise scope of practice for optometrists in your state. A list of contact details is available on the American Optometric Association (AOA) website.
Understanding Optometrists’ Prescribing Authority
So can optometrists prescribe medications? The short answer is yes—but only to a certain extent.
To better understand an optometrist’s authority to prescribe medication, there are 5 classifications of drug “schedules,” according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA):
- Schedule I: Drugs with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse
- Schedule II: Drugs with a high potential for abuse and the potential to cause severe dependence
- Schedule III: Drugs with a moderate to low potential for dependence
- Schedule IV: Drugs with low potential for abuse and dependence
- Schedule V: Drugs with lower potential for abuse and dependence
Optometrists can typically prescribe medication for those falling under Schedules II (but only Hydrocodone), III, IV, and V.
The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has a handy map that details the prescription authority of optometrists to prescribe controlled substances in each state.
In the next section, we’ll discuss what types of medications an optometrist can prescribe.
Types of Medications Optometrists Can Prescribe
Oral medication prescription
Optometrists are generally qualified to prescribe oral medications for eye diseases such as anterior uveitis, iritis, conjunctivitis (pink eye), bacterial infections of the eyelids, blepharitis, dry eyes, etc.
General oral medication
As of this writing, optometrists in all 50 states can prescribe oral medications, including:
- Analgesic medicines
- Antibiotic oral medications
- Antiviral medications
- Antifungal oral medications
- Antihistamine drugs
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Oral steroid medication
Optometrists can prescribe steroidal oral medications in all states, except for the following:
- Washington, DC
- New York
- South Carolina
Injectable anaphylaxis prescription
Anaphylaxis refers to a severe, potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can occur rapidly, affecting multiple body systems.
Optometrists are authorized to prescribe injectable medications, including epinephrine for the emergency treatment of anaphylaxis, across most states.
The following states allow for the prescription of injectable epinephrine for anaphylaxis only:
- Washington, DC
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
Anaphylaxis treatment and other conditions
The following states also allow optometrists to prescribe injectable medications, including epinephrine for emergency treatment of anaphylaxis and other conditions:
- West Virginia
- New Mexico
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
Topical medication prescription
Topical medications, which are applied directly to the eye or skin, can include antibiotics, antihistamines, antivirals, and other medications.
Optometrists are authorized to prescribe these topical medicaments in most states.
However, optometrists are typically not allowed to prescribe certain types of topical medications, such as medicated contact lenses or drugs that require specific mixing instructions due to their complex chemical composition.
Eye drops prescription
In general, most optometrists are authorized to prescribe eye drops in all states for the treatment of common ocular diseases, such as dry eye syndrome, eye inflammation, and glaucoma.
Eye drops can also be used in conjunction with other medications.
Collaboration with Ophthalmologists and Other Healthcare Professionals
In some cases, especially for more complicated medical conditions, it is necessary for optometrists to collaborate with ophthalmologists and other healthcare professionals in order to provide appropriate care for patients.
For example, in the case of herpes simplex keratitis, or HSV keratitis, optometrists can prescribe oral or topical antiviral medications to treat the infection.
However, due to the complexity of this condition, optometrists may need to consult with ophthalmologists for further management and treatment.
This kind of collaboration is encouraged in order to ensure that patients receive the best possible care for their eye health.
Conditions that affect other systems
In some cases, eye conditions may be linked to underlying health issues that could affect other bodily systems.
For example, glaucoma is a condition that affects the eyes and can lead to vision loss if it is not managed properly. However, certain types of glaucoma could be associated with other systemic diseases such as diabetes or hypertension.
In such cases, optometrists will need to collaborate with other healthcare providers and specialists in order to ensure that patients receive the most comprehensive care possible.
Conditions requiring surgery
In certain cases, eye conditions may require surgery in order to treat them. Examples of conditions that often require surgical intervention include cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal detachment.
Optometrists are not qualified to perform such surgeries, and thus they will need to refer patients to ophthalmologists or other specialists for further evaluation and treatment.
Legal and Regulatory Considerations
As mentioned earlier, the State Boards of Optometry regulate the optometric practice and the scope of authority that optometrists have in the following areas:
- Prescriptive authority: This includes the types of medications that optometrists can prescribe, as well as any restrictions and limitations on their ability to do so.
- Practice authority: This includes the types of services and procedures that optometrists are legally allowed to perform.
- Surgical authority: This includes surgical procedures that optometrists are qualified to perform.
Additionally, the Drug Enforcement Administration regulates the prescription of certain drugs, such as narcotic pain medications. Optometrists must adhere to these regulations and obtain the necessary DEA licenses in order to lawfully prescribe controlled substances.
All medical professionals are also required to follow the principles of ethical practice when it comes to prescribing medications. This includes:
- Obtaining informed consent from patients: This involves providing patients with information about the risks and benefits of any prescribed medications.
- Adhering to evidence-based medicine: Optometrists must ensure that any prescriptions they provide are based on the best available medical evidence.
- Maintaining accurate records: This includes keeping a detailed record of all medications prescribed by the optometrist, including the dosage, frequency, and duration of the treatment.
When Should You Seek Medical Attention for Your Eye Health?
It is important to remember that optometrists have limited authority when it comes to prescribing medications and performing certain medical procedures.
If you have any of the following serious symptoms, it is recommended that you seek medical attention from a qualified healthcare provider, such as an ophthalmologist:
- Loss of peripheral vision or complete vision loss
- Sudden onset of vision problems
- Sudden change in the way colors appear
- Flashes of light, floaters, or shadows in your field of vision
- Extreme pain in and around your eyes
- Unusual swelling or redness in your eyes
- Unexplained extreme light sensitivity
Importance of Choosing a Qualified Eye Care Provider
Selecting a qualified eye care provider like our team of eye doctors at Ophthalmology Associates is crucial for multiple reasons:
- Expertise: A qualified eye care provider possesses the necessary knowledge and expertise to diagnose and manage a wide range of eye diseases and conditions. They have undergone extensive education and training to ensure they can provide the highest standard of eye care.
- Access to Advanced Diagnostic Tools: Qualified providers have access to advanced diagnostic equipment, enabling early detection of eye conditions and diseases, which can lead to successful treatment and maintenance of vision.
- Coordinated Care: When treating complex conditions or conditions that affect other systems in the body, qualified providers can collaborate effectively with other healthcare professionals and specialists, ensuring patients receive comprehensive care.
- Preventive Eye Care: Regular visits to a qualified eye care provider can help prevent potential eye diseases and conditions. They can provide guidance on maintaining proper eye health and promoting good vision throughout life.
- Patient Education: A proficient eye care provider will provide patients with clear and accurate information about their eye health, allowing patients to make informed decisions about their treatment.
Choose Ophthalmology Associates As Your Eye Care Specialist
Choosing a qualified eye care provider plays a pivotal role in ensuring optimal eye health and vision.
Our professional optometrists and ophthalmologists at Ophthalmology Associates can provide personalized care, utilizing state-of-the-art technologies and treatments.
We are dedicated to providing the highest standard of eye care, ensuring each of our patients receives the best possible outcome.
Get in touch with us today to schedule an appointment or call us at (817) 332-2020.