While primary care providers (PCPs) and specialists are all health care professionals focused on keeping you healthy, the services they offer are different.
It can sometimes be difficult to decide whether you should see your PCP or a specialist. We’ve broken down what you need to know here.
Primary care providers
Primary care providers are physicians (or nurse practitioner) who span such board-certified specialties as internal medicine, family medicine and pediatrics. Everyone should have a PCP. In addition to providing preventive health care, they diagnose and treat a wide variety of conditions and illnesses.
It’s best to always start your health care journey with your PCP. Because they know you and your medical history, your PCP can diagnose and treat many problems. When they determine that you should see a specialist for additional care, they’ll have a network of physicians they work with regularly and can refer you for the most appropriate care based on your medical needs.
A physician whose training focuses on a specific discipline is a specialist. Specialists diagnose and treat particular conditions or diseases, or illnesses that affect a particular system within the body. Examples of specialists include:
- A gastroenterologist, who specializes in treating digestive organs.
- An ENT (ear, nose and throat doctor), who treats sinus problems, hearing impairment and swallowing problems.
- A psychiatrist, who specializes in diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues.
- A rheumatologist, who specializes in autoimmune disorders and musculoskeletal and inflammatory disease, such as lupus and arthritis.
- An endocrinologist, who treats conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disorders or infertility.
- An oncologist, who specializes in treating cancer.
- A cardiologist, who specializes in heart conditions.
While some insurance plans don’t requite a referral from your primary care provider to see a specialist, others do. Make sure you check and know what your plan expects. Regardless, you’ll want to inform your primary care provider about what’s going on so they can work together with your specialist to coordinate your care.