Beyond Primary Care: Choosing a Medical Specialist
Most people use a family physician, internist, obstetrician-gynecologist, or pediatrician as their primary care doctor. These doctors manage patients’ healthcare and help them make decisions when problems come up.
However, sometimes a person has a problem that needs to be treated by a doctor who has a narrower focus. These specialists have gone through additional training to become experts in a specific field. They see more patients with health problems related to their area of specific field than primary care colleagues. Some examples are oncologists (for cancer), cardiologists (for heart problems), and surgeons.
If you have a health problem that requires specialty care, your primary care doctor will let you know which doctors you may be able to see. You may choose to go to one of these doctors or you may want to do research to find one on your own.
Make a List of Specialists
The first step is to make a list of the specialists you are considering. Your friends, family members, or coworkers may know of a trusted specialist. Many organizations and services can also give you a list of specialists from which to choose:
- American Medical Association—lets you search for doctors by name or by medical specialty
- American Board of Medical Specialties—lists board certified doctors’ names, specialty, and background
- American College of Surgeons—lists surgeons and treatment centers
- Administrators in Medicine —provides data on doctors who are licensed in certain states
- Medicare —lists Medicare physicians by name, location, or specialty
- Disease-specific organizations and agencies—these resources, such as the National Cancer Institute or American College of Cardiologists may offer lists of specialists and sub-specialists
- Insurance companies—lists specialists that are covered under your plan
- Local hospitals—refers patients to specialists who practice in that hospital
- Local medical societies—lists of doctors by specialty
- Public and medical libraries—lists of specialties
- Local phone books—lists local specialists under the heading “Physicians”
- Doctors or other healthcare providers—may be able to provide referrals
Narrow Your List
After you have made a list of specialists in your area, you will need to narrow it to two or three doctors who meet your needs. Here are some things to think about:
Training and Background
You may find it helpful to learn more about how doctors are trained. Doctors receive 4 years of undergraduate education, 4 years of medical school (where they earn their medical degree), and 3 to 7 years of postgraduate medical training that includes internships and residencies. Doctors must pass a state exam to practice medicine in their state. Specialist doctors complete their residency and specialty training in a specific area (fellowship), such as oncology or surgery. Doctors can even choose to subspecialize and complete at least one more year of training in an area of a specialty. Ask doctors about their training, interests, and background with your health concern.
More and more doctors are being rated by consumer organizations and other groups. Best Doctors uses a national survey to gather recommendations from prominent doctors. Other services like this include RateMDs and healthgrades. This can be helpful but it should not be the only method you use to choose a specialist. These organizations may rely on rating systems that may not be fair.
If you want to be treated at a specific hospital, narrow your list to only those doctors who practice at that hospital. Keep in mind that is only as good as the technical support the hospital provides. It is important to know how specialty procedures the hospital does per year and what the patient outcomes are.
Health Plan Coverage
Most people need doctors who are covered by their health plan. This helps to lower costs. If you use a federal or state health insurance program like Medicare, be sure to ask the office staff if they are accepting patients with your plan.
Membership in a Medical Society
Almost all specialists are members of a medical society, such as the American College of Surgeons. Doctors who have fellowship status in a medical society have shown achievement in their profession as judged by colleagues.
Your doctor should be able to speak the same language you do. For non-English speakers, this will not often be the case. If you cannot speak directly with your specialist, then find a practice and hospital that has translation services.
Decide on a Specialist
When you have found one or more specialists who meet your needs, the next step is to make an appointment. If you have more than one doctor on your list, call each office and ask what their hours are, how long it takes to get an appointment, what the typical wait in the office is, whether the doctor or nurses give advice over the phone, and any other questions that are important to you.
Bring a list of questions with you when you visit your specialist for the first time. You want to be comfortable with your doctor since you will be working closely with them when making decisions about your treatment.
American Medical Association
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Finding health care services. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/managing-care/services. Accessed October 14, 2021.
How to find a disease specialist. Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center website. Available at: https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/guides/pages/25/how-to-find-a-disease-specialist. Accessed October 14, 2021.
Last reviewed October 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 10/15/2021