Your eyes are more than just the window to your soul. They're your portal to your world. Strangely, in a culture increasingly obsessed with healthy living, the eyes often take a backseat to clear skin, wrinkle-free aging, and weight loss. But your eyes are just as vulnerable to lifestyle factors, medical error, and poor diet as other body parts, and you only get one pair. Whether you're trying out LASIK, getting your first pair of glasses, or seeking help for an eye infection, the right optometrist or ophthalmologist can make a world of difference. Here's how to ensure you've made the perfect selection.

See the right type of eye care professional.

Eye care experts come in three basic varieties.

  • Opticians specialize in fitting and dispensing corrective lenses, making them the optometric equivalent of a pharmacist. Opticians can't diagnose and treat illnesses, so see an optician only if you already have a prescription and just need a new pair of lenses.
  • Optometrists treat simple eye issues, such as styes and other infections, as well as assessing eye health concerns and prescribing corrective lenses. Though they are not medical doctors, they have doctoral degrees in optometry; this specialized training typically takes four years to complete.
  • Ophthalmologists are medical doctors with specialized training in eye health. They can treat most eye issues, including complex challenges such as glaucoma and specific eye diseases.

Most eye health consultations are with an optometrist, and most optometrists offer referrals to ophthalmologists when they're unable to treat a particular issue. But if you know you have a complex eye health problems, or they run in your family, consider beginning your search for eye health care with an ophthalmologist.

Check licensing information.

Both optometrists and ophthalmologists must be licensed to practice in the state in which they run their businesses. Though a license does not guarantee that an eye care professional is good at their job, it does indicate that they have met your state's minimum educational, training, and ethical requirements. It is illegal to practice optometry or ophthalmology without a license, and unlicensed professionals can do severe and permanent damage to your eye. Contact your state licensing board to inquire about your eye care professional's license status before going to your first appointment. The board can also tell you if your eye care provider has ever been disciplined for professional misconduct.

Get a referral from your primary care doctor.

The easiest and most effective way to find an eye care professional is to get a recommendation from a friend or family member who had a good experience with their eye health provider. A recommendation is especially useful if it comes from someone who faces an eye issue similar to your own. But remember, recommendations are just the beginning of the search, not the end, and the fact that one person had a good experience does not necessarily mean you will.

Read reviews and check reputation.

The Internet has empowered patients to share their experiences with others, so take advantage of this powerful tool. Read your eye care provider's online reviews with a critical eye. Remember, a single negative review doesn't necessarily mean anything. But if a pattern begins to emerge, or the complaints in the negative review are very serious, avoid the risk and try someone else. Consider also perusing the eye care provider's website, since this can give you valuable insights into his or her treatment philosophy, bedside manner, and practice policies.

Ask the right questions.

Good doctors don't want to hide the way they do business; they want to highlight their quality care and excellent customer service. If your doctor shies away from answering a few questions, move on. Some questions to consider asking a new optometrist or ophthalmologist include:

  • What insurance policies do you accept?
  • Do you offer same-day or emergency appointments?
  • What is your policy regarding missed appointments?
  • Have you partnered with any organization or agency that offers you a commission for selling particular services or tests?
  • How long do you spend with each patient?

Once you've established a working relationship with your provider, he or she will likely begin making treatment recommendations. Consider asking the following questions to ensure you get excellent treatment:

  • What is the least expensive and least intrusive way to treat this issue?
  • Do I need to change my lifestyle to improve my eye health?
  • Is there an alternative treatment I should try first?
  • Am I a candidate for laser vision surgery?
  • Do I face a heightened risk for any genetic or lifestyle-related eye health issues?
  • What can I do to improve the safety of wearing contacts?

If your eye care provider recommends surgery, consider seeking a second opinion, since even mundane eye surgery can yield serious side effects if something goes wrong.