TORONTO - Optometrists in Ontario have received the green light to prescribe medications for routine eye infections as well as more serious diseases such as glaucoma.

The province has approved a new regulation that will allow people with a number of eye conditions to get treatment from their optometrist instead of forcing them to see a doctor, Health Minister Deb Matthews said Wednesday.

"There are a lot more optometrists than there are ophthalmologist, and if you think about people who live in rural Ontario or northern Ontario, it means they're going to be able to access that kind of care a lot closer to home," she said.

Optometrists are regulated health professionals trained to diagnose and treat eye disorders, while ophthamologists are medical doctors who specialize in eye care.

In the past, optometrists who diagnosed a condition requiring medication had to refer patients to an ophthalmologist or other physician, said John Mastronardi, president of the Ontario Association of Optometrists, said Wednesday.

"It's sometimes difficult if there isn't a walk-in clinic available or a family physician or an ophthalmologist on call ... to get patients properly triaged," he said.

Some patients with chronic eye conditions, including glaucoma, may have skimped on care rather than face lengthy waits or travel to out-of-town care, he added.

What's more, getting patients with eye conditions out of emergency rooms and walk-in clinics should help reduce wait times there, he said.

Paul Ting, executive director of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind's Ontario chapter, said the change could help prevent vision loss by treating eye problems earlier.

About 75 per cent of vision loss is preventable or treatable, provided it's spotted early enough, he said.

About 3.2 per cent of Canadians over 15 reported some kind of vision limitation in 2006, the latest data provided by Statistics Canada.

Learning to prescribe drugs has been part of the country's optometry curriculum since 1995.

Ontario is one of the last provinces to allow optometrists to prescribe medications. However, optometrists here are the only ones so far with the authority to prescribe oral drugs as well as topical ones.

Patients can see an optometrist for eye inflammation, infection and pain; red eye due to contact lenses; eyelid infection and inflammation; allergies affecting the eyes; superficial foreign bodies in the eyes and glaucoma.

The government approved legislation in 2007 that paved the way for the regulation.

The province also passed legislation in 2009 that would broaden the scope of practice for nurse practitioners, dentists, pharmacists and physiotherapists in an effort to reduce congestion in emergency rooms.