By Sterling Medical Staff

The future looks bright for those in the practice of optometry, and perhaps even more so for those studying to become optometrists.  According to top sources, optometry as a profession is growing much faster than most fields on the job market, even amongst the other steadily growing groups in the medical field.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the need for optometrists is currently growing at a rate of 33%, a rate considerably faster than most occupational fields in this country.  While the economic recession has slowed the growth of many major industries, the healthcare community stands out as one field that is growing at a steady rate, and with no signs of backing down.  Even compared to other professions in the medical field, the growth of optometrists exceeds its peers by a solid 7%1.

The need for optometrists is growing for several reasons.  The healthcare industry at large is growing at a faster rate than most, due in large part to the nationwide insurance coverage mandated by the Affordable Care Act.  With the number of insured American reaching unprecedented levels and more insurance companies offering vision care benefits, the need for optometrists to meet demand is at an all-time high.  Medical care in general is also on the rise, as one of the nation’s largest demographics, the baby boomers, begin to retire and enter old age.  Not only does the aging boomer population come with an increased need for medical care, it also leaves a vacuum of optometrists and other healthcare providers as members of the generation begin to retire.

Optometrists provide the vast majority of ocular related care in this country.  Though not as educationally learned as ophthalmologists, who are physicians and surgeons specializing in eye care, optometrists are what most people think of when they picture an eye doctor.  Optometrists are responsible for conducting standard vision tests, prescribing and fitting corrective lenses, and even diagnosing and treating many standard eye-related diseases.

Optometrists enjoy many of the perks commonly associated with doctoral medical practitioners, yet few of the drawbacks.  Optometrists, like most upper level medical professionals, require a four year post-graduate degree.  However, whereas physicians, surgeons, and even dentists require additional post-doctoral training in the form of internships or residencies, optometrists are able to begin practicing soon after graduation.  In order to become a licensed optometrist, candidates must first obtain a Doctor of Optometry degree (OD) from an accredited optometry program.  The Accreditation Council on Optometric Education is the only accrediting body for OD programs, and currently accredits over 20 programs throughout the United States and Canada2.

Most optometrists enjoy regular hours and steady work.  Roughly half of the optometrists practicing in this county do so in stand-alone clinics, and in 2010 approximately 22% were self-employed in private practices3.  Other work settings for optometrists include physicians’ offices, health and personal care stores, and outpatient care centers. And because the scope of care provided by optometrists doesn’t involve life-threatening or urgent care treatment, optometrists are typically not required to work many hours past that of a normal work week.

The average pay for optometrists, while slightly lower than that of practicing physicians or dentists, is still very high.  The median, or middle, annual wage for optometrists in 2010 was $94,990, although members of the highest 10% earned $166,400 or more4.  Taking into consideration the time and monetary investment required in order to obtain an OD, optometrists wind up coming out on top.

With more Americans enjoying vision coverage than ever before, the need for optometrists will only continue to grow.  Coupled with the increasing health needs of the boomer generation, and the vacancy left as they continue to exit the workforce, those interested in pursuing optometry as a profession are looking at a bright future indeed.