Skip to main content

Beyond Primary Care: Choosing a Medical Specialist

image Most people use a family physician, internist, obstetrician-gynecologist, or pediatrician as their primary care doctor. Primary care doctors, sometime called generalists, manage their patients’ healthcare and help them make medical decisions when problems arise.

However, sometimes a person develops a medical problem that requires a physician with a more narrow focus. These specialists have received additional training to become experts in a specific field. They see far more patients with conditions related to their area of expertise than their generalist colleagues. Examples of specialists include oncologists (for cancer), cardiologists (for heart disease), and surgeons.

If you have a medical condition that requires specialty care, your primary care doctor will likely make a recommendation of whom to see, which you may simply choose to accept. However, there are many specialists out there, and you may want to do your own research to determine which one is best for you.

Make a List of Specialists

The first step is to make a list of potential candidates. Your friends, family members, or coworkers may know of a trusted specialist. Fortunately, there are also a number of organizations and services that can provide you with a list of medical or surgical specialists from which to choose:

  • American Medical Association DoctorFinder—an online database that allows users to search for doctors by name or by medical specialty
  • American Board of Medical Specialties—a directory that lists board certified doctors’ names, along with their specialty and background
  • American College of Surgeons—an online list of surgeons and treatment centers
  • Administrators in Medicine Docfinder—provides data on doctors who are licensed in certain states
  • Medicare Participating Physician Directory—a database of Medicare physicians that is searchable by doctor name, location, or specialty
  • Disease-specific organizations and professional agencies—these resources, such as the National Cancer Institute or American College of Cardiologists may provide lists of specialists and sub-specialists in different geographic areas
  • Insurance companies—your insurance provider should be able to provide you with a list of specialists that are covered under your plan
  • Local hospitals—their patient referral services can provide a list of specialists who practice in that hospital
  • Local medical societies—they may have lists of doctors in different specialties
  • Public and medical libraries—they usually have print directories of doctors in different specialties
  • Local phone books—local specialists are listed under the heading “Physicians”
  • Doctors or other health professionals—doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who work with specialists may be able to provide recommendations

Narrow Your List

After you have made a list of specialists in your area, you will need to narrow it to 2 or 3 doctors who meet your specific needs. Below is a list of factors you may want to consider when choosing a specialist. Prioritizing this list and adding to it will help you choose the right doctor for you.

Training and Background

Before choosing a doctor, you may find it helpful to learn more about how doctors are trained and how you can find out what kind of training your doctor has. Doctors receive 4 years of undergraduate education, 4 years of medical school (where they earn their Medical Degree [MD]), and 3-7 years of postgraduate medical training that includes internships and residencies. Doctors must pass a state exam to be legally permitted to practice medicine in their state. Specialist doctors completed 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 1 more year of training in a particular area of a specialty. Never hesitate to ask a doctor about his or her training, interests, and background with your condition or concern.

Ratings by Consumer and Other Organizations

More and more doctors are being rated by consumer organizations and other groups devoted to quality healthcare. One such service, Best Doctors, uses a national survey method to solicit doctor recommendations from other prominent doctors. Other online services like this are Rate MDs, and HealthGrade. While this information can be extremely useful, it should not be the only criteria used to judge a physician, since these organizations may rely on rating systems that are not entirely accurate or fair.

Privileges at Certain Hospitals

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 if you are looking for a surgeon, he or she can only be as good as the technical support the hospital provides. Therefore, it is important to know how many of your surgical procedures the hospital performs per year, and what the patient outcomes are.

Coverage by Health Plans

Unless you are prepared to pay for your treatment out-of-pocket (which is simply not an option for most of us), consider doctors who are covered by your health plan. If you use a federal or state health insurance program, such as Medicare, be sure to ask the office staff or doctor if they are accepting patients using these programs.

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 demonstrated outstanding achievement in their profession in the eyes of their colleagues.


Ideally, your doctor should to be able to speak the same language you do. For non-English speakers, this will not often be the case. If you cannot directly communicate with your specialist, it essential that you find a practice and hospital that have high quality translation services.

Decide on a Specialist

When you have identified 1 or more specialists who meet your needs, the next step is to make an appointment. If your list includes more than 1 doctor, call each doctor’s office and ask what regular office hours are, how long it takes to get an appointment, what the typical wait in the doctor’s office is, whether the doctor or nurses give advice over the phone, and any other questions that are important to you.

When you visit your specialist for the first time, bring a list of questions. You want to be completely 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

Health Canada


Clancy CM. Smart choices: how to choose a health plan that's right for you. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: Accessed May 18, 2016.

Clancy CM. Tips to help you find a good doctor. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality website. Available at: Updated July 2008. Accessed May 18, 2016.

FAQ: find a doctor. National Library of Medicine website. Available at: Updated August 10, 2015. Accessed May 18, 2016.

How to find a doctor or treatment facility if you have cancer. National Institute of Cancer website. Available at: Updated June 5, 2013. Accessed May 18, 2016.

What is a cardiologist? American College of Cardiology CardioSmart website. Available at: Accessed May 18, 2016.

Last reviewed May 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 7/22/2014