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Online Eye Exams: Money Saving or a Bad Idea?

glasses prescriptions from your computer

No more eye chart?

How many people think it’s too expensive to go the the eye doctor? How many people don’t have time to go see the eye doctor? How many people would rather have their fingernails peeled off than have to get eye drops? If you answered yes to one of these questions, Opternative might be for you. Opternative is new online eye exam done exclusively from your computer or smart phone. The fee is only $35 and that gives you a real prescription for eyeglasses. It could be available as soon as summer 2014. Sounds great, but is an online eye exam a good idea?

Limitations of Getting Your Eyes Checked Online

It appears that for now, Opternative is only available for people ages 18- 40 who have no history of diabetes, glaucoma, high blood pressure, neurologic issues, or other health concerns that might affect eyes. While their website does not specifically say it, limiting the age means it is only for people who don’t need bifocals or reading glasses that become necessary when presbyopia happens (can’t see up close or arms are too short).

The information on the website is pretty vague, but it appears to do the exam, you look at images on a screen and line some things up from a distance measured by how large you shoe size is. I’m curious to see the final product, but it would seem this company is placing a lot of credit on people following directions. Considering that about 5 out of every 10 patients I tell to cover their left eye immediately cover their right one, this might be asking a lot.

Is it a Legitimate Prescription?

According to the website, an ophthalmologist will review and sign your prescription. I am a bit surprised because it would seem to open the doctor up for some liability, but I guess you probably sign your life away before you get the final Rx. Glasses can be purchased  at anywhere that accepts outside prescriptions. Online eye exams cannot be used for contacts.

What If I Get My Glasses and Can’t See?

One benefit to getting a prescription at a private office is that the office will generally work with you and do a remake or exchange of some sort if you are not happy with your product. I doubt a store is going to be willing to do that if you bring in a prescription from online. I guess time will tell if Opternative will stand behind their services if patients aren’t satisfied.

Honestly, some people have very easy prescriptions and aren’t picky. They would probably do fine with this service. Others who have higher amounts of nearsightedness, farsightedness, or astigmatism might have more trouble. Also, some people just can’t give good answers and need the help of a doctor to walk them through the process.

If you are the person who answers the eye doctor’s question of which choice is better with something like this:

“Well, the bottom of the g looks more defined on #1, but the c looks wider on choice #2.”

then please don’t try this exam at home.

The Real Issue With Online Eye Exams

As a practicing optometrist, I should be fighting this technology like the recording industry fought digital music. You see how well that worked out. I think we have to embrace new technology and find ways to incorporate it into practice.

The Opternative website says that by getting a prescription, you realize that this is not a health exam and that you need to follow up with a real doctor to have eye health checked. Who on earth is going to do that?

While ages 18-40 might be low risk for most eye diseases, I have seen patients in this demographic with glaucoma, holes or tears in the retina, and people with odd pupil, retinal, or visual field defects who had 20/20 vision but also were in the early stages of diseases like multiple sclerosis, diabetes, or autoimmune diseases like lupus. An thorough eye exam checks much more the prescription for glasses. 

This Ain’t 1-800-Contacts

Private optometrists have bemoaned the sale of contacts and glasses online for years, but to order contacts, patients must have a legitimate prescription By law, doctors are required to check vision and eye health before issuing that prescription, regardless of where you purchase glasses or contacts.

I can’t in good conscience support the ability of people to get a prescription without an eye health check. Maybe doctors could make it easier by offering a lower cost exam for the health part if you don’t need the prescription? If I were still a practice owner, that’s probably what I’d do if I saw that this technology is going to take off.

I’m very curious about the process, so I’ll certainly check it out when it become available. I wouldn’t be surprised if the medical and optometry lobbyists don’t find some way to block it, so it might not become reality.  I’m trying to keep an open mind, but I’ll probably still think it’s a bad idea, even if my prescription comes out to be 100% correct.

Would you save a few bucks to get an exam online? If so, would you worry about not having your eye health checked?

I have no affiliate relationship with Opternative. 

Image: Freedigitalphotos.net/Ponsulak

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. I think it is an interesting idea, however when it comes to my health and my body, I think I would rather go and visit a real person rather than do it over the internet.

  2. It’s always nice to see things become more virtual, but like you said there are things that optometrists check for that can’t be done remotely. I would feel much better actually seeing an optometrist versus getting my eyes checked online. That reminds me, it’s been about 2 years since I had an eye appointment…

  3. Not gonna lie, I don’t think we’d try something like this unless we had a pretty good idea that we knew what our Rx was and just needed a copy or something and couldn’t get one from our OD. In short, our employer covered vision plan is really cheap ($10 exam copay once per year), and the potential for the online exam missing things that we want to keep track of (Mr PoP’s field of vision since his family history includes glaucoma, the astigmatism that I’m apparently starting to develop) only gets increasingly long each year. Ahh, the joys of getting old and spending too much time staring at computers!

    • I really think anyone over 16 needs to have eye pressures and a screening visual field at every eye exam. Even if it just gives you baseline data, it’s still worthwhile.

  4. I did not even know you could do that. It seems that you need the machine that gives the choices “number 5, or number 6”.

    And isn’t Walmart not much more, and you get it done with a real person?

    • I would rather have a real person any day. Even with a private practice doctor, I’ve always thought eye exams weren’t that bad. If you’ve had dental work done recently, eye care seems like a bargain.

  5. “Considering that about 5 out of every 10 patients I tell to cover their left eye immediately cover their right one, this might be asking a lot.” Ha ha, I can only imagine some of the things you get to see Kim! That said, this is something I’m more than willing to pony up the cash for and go see an actual optometrist so I can get the right prescription. I’m blind as a bat, and now over 40 so I don’t think something like this would be a good fit for me.

    • I’m too old too, but I’ll lie about my age and see if they let me take the test just for research. How will they verify your age? Another issue I suppose.

  6. I don’t think this is a good Plan A. As a Plan B, it would have been nice to have a cheaper alternative to get an updated prescription before I had PRK surgery. I had to wait several months until I had a long enough break from school to be able to recover. My prescription was out of date, and it would have been nice to have a few pair of stronger prescription contacts to wear in the interim!

  7. I’ll be honest, I’m terrible about my eyes. I’m supposed to wear my glasses all the time, but only do when I’m driving, since I’m legally required to, and it’s been too long since I’ve had an eye exam. That being said, no way would I do the online thing. But then again, I’m exactly the patient you describe; When given two choices, half the time I’m like “neither?” I feel like there’s an “art” to eye exams that just couldn’t be replicated by an app.

    • There is a huge amount of art to it. Some people are just horrible with giving answers.There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just their personality. Part of my training includes how to guide people and make sense of what they say without making it stressful. Machines just can’t do that.

  8. I didn’t even know online eye exams was an option. When it comes to health…I probably wouldn’t want to take a shortcut or use a cheaper option. Doesn’t seem like an eye exam by an optometrist or ophthalmologist can be replaced the internet.

    • I don’t think so. The online exam won’t be available until this summer at the earliest, but the AOA is really against it and they have a strong lobby, so there is a good chance they will squash it before it ever takes off.

  9. I would need to make sure I go to the doctor to get checked up. I do get my contacts online, but that is only because of cost. They cost so much at the doctor and I am a cost conscious person.

  10. No, I would never do that. I have encouraged people who have good vision to get their eyes checked. Glaucoma is very real and nothing to mess around with. Kirby Puckett taught me that.

    Also for the above comment about WalMart, they are not very cheap but their service is terrible. I’ve had much better experiences with the locally owned eye clinics. They are price competitive while still caring.

    • Obviously, I’m a big fan of private practice. I don’t think all Walmart docs are bad, but the model is based on quantity rather than quality, so the customer service has to suffer most of the time.

  11. It’s an interesting concept, but I would not feel comfortable with it. My optometrist is really thorough and I think it’s well worth the money to go in-person. Then again, my vision is horrible, so I’ve always safeguarded it. My prescription has stayed the same for the last few years, but as you said, you can see if there are other underlying issues with an eye exam.

    • I’d be really hesitant to use something like this with a bad prescription. The higher it is, the more important to get all the numbers correct.

  12. No, I wouldn’t, but again, I’m also outside their age range too. 🙂 But like you said, having an optometrist check your eye health and ask you questions, is worth the extra price and time. No, it isn’t always easy to fit in an appointment by my eye health is worth it to me! And I am still chuckling over 50% of your clients automatically covering the wrong eye. 🙂 Have a great weekend!

    • I always like the feeling of relief whenever I finish an appointment. I’m not sure I’d feel that online.

  13. I’m not picky so I might consider it. I have vision coverage through my current insurance though, so I’ll go to the doc as long as I can.

  14. I don’t know…I think I’d still feel better going in to a real doctor. That being said, it’s pretty easy for me to save money right now because I’ve never had eye issues. I think I’ve been to an eye doctor maybe 3 times in my life. But I can imagine an online thing would be a good substitute.

  15. I don’t like the sound of this one bit! When I go for an eye exam (long term spectacle wearer here!) I like to not just have my sight checked by a qualified professional but also have my eye *health* checked at the same time. Even *if* you could do an eye exam online (which, the cynic in me, says won’t be very accurate) you won’t have someone checking your eyes for any health-related issues.

    What I *do* approve of though, from a financial perspective, is buying my glasses online. At least here in the UK, glasses are so expensive (think $100-200 for many pairs) that I take my in-person prescription and then order my glasses from a company in the UK that charges less than half the price.

    Oh, and I stopped wearing contact lenses in favor of glasses, which are, in my opinion, generally more cost effective.

  16. This makes me nervous, honestly. I like the idea of going in and sitting down in front of our optometrist, face to face. Then again, we have vision coverage, so that definitely helps my decision. 🙂

  17. Since the online “visit” is so cheap what kind of eye doctor would even want that job? I doubt the caliber of doctor they hire is too low for what I would expect for quality care. Saving money doesn’t always work in one’s favor and I see this blowing up in people’s faces.

  18. I don’t care how cheap it would be, I’d rather pay more and actually go to an eye doctor that I know and trust. There are too any scams online for me to trust getting a competent and complete eye exam.

  19. This is amazing I think that seeing doctors online will save a lot of time and money. Thank for this post

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