Vision care is a varied field, and there are two distinctly different doctorates for practitioners working in the field. Optometrists take a specialized doctor of optometry degree, which is specifically focused on eyes and their care. Ophthalmologists are fully trained medical doctors, whose degrees include clinical and theoretical specialization in the treatment of eyes and their problems. There is a significant difference in salary, favoring opthalmologists.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides salary data for both optometrists and physicians. According to its May 2011 figures, the average income for optometrists was $107,720 per year. That same figure, for physicians and surgeons, was $184,650. Unfortunately, the BLS' data aren't complete, in part because its system isn't capable of reporting such high incomes. Salary survey data from the American Medical Group Association, though, can provide a real-world comparison from its members' surveys. In its 2009 survey, the median income for optometrists was $124,067, while ophthalmologists earned $238,200.
Optometrists often share practices with physicians. This is their highest-earning niche, at an average of $123,720 per year. Outpatient care centers pay an average of $114,230, while mainstream hospitals pay an average of $105,900. Those who operate their own practices earned an average of $105,780, while those in eyewear outlets earned $102,440. The BLS includes salary data for ophthalmologists in its figures for all physicians, so the numbers are less directly pertinent. Physicians operating from doctors' offices averaged $214,910, though, while those in outpatient care centers averaged $211,490. These numbers are in line with the median income reported for ophthalmologists by the AMGA.
As with other healthcare specialties, some states offer optometrists and ophthalmologists better pay. The AMGA's figures show that the North and West paid optometrists better than the East and South. The BLS has South Dakota leading the way, with an average salary of $148,640 for its optometrists. Connecticut, North Carolina, Alaska and Virginia also rank among the highest-paying states. The lowest is West Virginia, at $64,130. For opthalmologists the picture is less clear, but should loosely parallel the averages for all physicians. Mississippi had the highest pay for physicians, at $234,620, with South Dakota, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Maine rounding out the list. Oklahoma was lowest at $132,440.
The BLS anticipates that demand for optometrists will grow by 33 percent between 2010 and 2020, much higher than the average for all occupations. In part this will be caused by the aging baby boomer generation, whose needs for vision care will increase. Illnesses such as diabetes that affect vision are also rising and will contribute to this growth. Demand for physicians is also expected to be strong, averaging 24 percent growth over the same period. The BLS doesn't provide data for ophthalmologists specifically, but they're likely to be in high demand for the same reasons as optometrists.