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Visiting an optician

When you visit an optician for an eye test, you'll be examined by an ophthalmic practitioner or optometrist who is trained to recognise abnormalities and conditions, such as cataracts or glaucoma.

Ophthalmic practitioners prescribe and fit glasses and contact lenses. If necessary, they'll refer you to a GP or a hospital eye clinic for further investigations. Sometimes, you'll be referred to a specialist optometrist for a referral refinement (reassessment).

How often should I have an eye test?

Your eyes rarely hurt when something is wrong with them, so having regular eye tests is important to help detect potentially harmful conditions.

The NHS recommends that you should have your eyes tested every 2 years (more often if advised by your ophthalmic practitioner or optometrist).

An NHS sight test is free of charge if you're in one of the eligible groups and the test is considered clinically necessary. If the ophthalmic practitioner cannot see a clinical need, you'll have to pay for the test privately.

Find out more about free NHS eye tests and optical vouchers.

What happens after an eye test?

Following an eye test your ophthalmic practitioner is legally required to give you your optical prescription or a statement to say you've been referred for further tests.

An NHS optical voucher will also be issued immediately if you can prove you're entitled to one. There are currently 10 voucher values for glasses and lenses. The values depend on the strength of your prescription. The stronger your prescription, the higher the value of your voucher.

You should never feel obliged to buy glasses or redeem an optical voucher from the place where you had your eye test. Shop around for the best value and only buy glasses or contact lenses when you're happy with the product and cost.

How can I make a complaint?

If you're not happy with the service or treatment provided, you have the right to make a complaint.

Wherever possible, complaints should be made directly to the practice as it may be possible to sort out the problem straight away.

If you would prefer to talk to someone who is not involved with the practice concerned, you can complain to NHS England. Find out about the NHS complaints procedure.

The Optical Consumer Complaints Service (OCCS) may also be able to give you advice or provide some mediation. The OCCS website has more advice for consumers.

Why does the optician not give me my pupillary distance?

Your ophthalmic practitioner or optometrist is not required by law to include details of the horizontal distance between your pupils (the inter-pupillary distance) in your prescription.

The responsibility for ensuring the lenses are properly centred in your frames lies with the person fitting your glasses (dispensing optician), and they'll have to do all the measuring.

Any provider of glasses, whether shop- or internet-based, should have arrangements in place to be able to satisfy this requirement.

Eye healthcare professionals explained

Dispensing opticians

Dispensing opticians fit glasses and contact lenses working from the prescriptions written by an ophthalmic practitioner or ophthalmologist. They also fit and dispense low vision aids such as magnifying glasses or telescopic spectacles. They do not do eye tests.

A dispensing optician can give you advice on types of lenses, such as single-vision or bifocal (lenses with 2 distinct optical powers) and help you to choose frames and other optical aids. They can also give you advice about wearing and caring for your glasses or contact lenses.

Optometrists

An optometrist is trained to recognise abnormalities in your eyes.

They examine the internal and external structure of your eyes to detect conditions such as glaucoma, macular degeneration and cataracts.

They may also test your ability to focus and coordinate your eyes and see depth and colours accurately. If necessary, the optometrist will refer you to your GP or a hospital eye clinic for further investigations.

Optometrists can prescribe and fit glasses, contact lenses and low vision aids, and, if trained to do so, medicines to treat eye conditions.

Ophthalmic medical practitioners

Ophthalmic medical practitioners are medically qualified doctors specialising in eyecare.

Like optometrists, they examine eyes, test sight, diagnose abnormalities and prescribe suitable corrective lenses.

Ophthalmologists

Ophthalmologists (eye surgeons) are doctors that specialise in the medical and surgical care of the eyes and visual system.

They also look into the prevention of eye disease and injury. An ophthalmologist treats people of all ages, from premature babies to the elderly.

Conditions dealt with in ophthalmology can include eye trauma, cataracts, diabetic eye conditions such as diabetic retinopathy, as well as congenital and genetic eye problems.

Orthoptists

Orthoptists are specialists in squints and eye movement disorders. They investigate and identify problems relating to the development of the visual system, including:

  • squint and lazy eyes in children (orthoptists often do vision screening of children in schools and community health centres)
  • adults with learning difficulties
  • adults with double vision or a binocular vision problem

Page last reviewed: 3 December 2019
Next review due: 3 December 2022