Get to know your doctors: primary care versus specialists
Most Americans seeking medical help know to see a physician but may not realize that physicians can vary greatly in the types of services they provide. Based on their medical specialties, physicians are grouped into two categories: primary care physicians and specialty physicians.
See our breakdown below to learn the key differences between the two and how they work together to optimize your health.
Primary Care Physicians
Many of your health needs can be addressed by a primary care physician (PCP). Trained in medical specialties like family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics, PCPs have broad knowledge of diseases and other ailments.
These physicians manage your overall health care and use their knowledge of your medical history to stay ahead of potential issues. In addition to diagnosing most health symptoms and prescribing medications, PCPs offer many forms of preventive care such as physicals, certain cancer screenings, STI screenings, vaccinations, and more.
It is essential to communicate with your PCP about anything that concerns your health. You may encounter various pieces of health information online or through word-of-mouth, but it is not a substitute for seeing a doctor with a comprehensive understanding of the human body.
People with advanced health needs may be referred by a primary care physician to see a specialty physician, also known as a specialist. Common specialists include cardiologists, OB-GYNs, oncologists, pulmonologists, radiologists, and surgeons.
While PCPs have broad knowledge, specialists focus on the management of specific conditions and/or body systems. They work with your PCP to provide care based on their respective specialties. You may be referred to a specialist for conditions such as cancer, heart disease, reproductive issues, serious infections, and more.
An important thing to note is that medical specialties are determined by a physician’s postgraduate training and are unrelated to the physician’s medical degree. Both Medical Doctors (MDs) and Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) must complete several years of residency training, with optional fellowship training, to practice in any given specialty.
Gabriella Vasile, DO, a dermatologist training to further sub-specialize in Mohs surgery and cosmetic dermatology, explains that both DOs and MDs participate in the same match system (NRMP) to match into residency programs and thus train side-by-side in the specialty of their choice.
Many osteopathic physicians choose to specialize, just like their allopathic (MD) counterparts, instead of going into primary care, says Dr. Vasile. As a DO, I recently completed residency in dermatology and chose to do a fellowship to sub-specialize in dermatologic surgery.
Being informed about a physician’s specialty can go a long way, as both primary care and specialty physicians have a role in your health care. To learn more about finding a physician, see our additional resources here.