Working in tandem, primary care and specialty physicians can combine their expertise to provide patients with a complete health care team.
When seeking a specialist, patients should look for a practitioner who is approachable, has a good bedside manner and maintains a solid reputation in the medical field.
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At one point or another, you or a loved one has likely seen a specialist for your health care needs.
Even if you or your family uses a family physician, many children routinely see pediatricians, women visit gynecologists and seniors may maintain regular appointments with a cardiologist.
The American Association of Medical Colleges reports that the number of medical and osteopathic doctors entering the primary care field is shrinking, and currently 20 percent of medical school graduates go into primary care.
Both primary care doctors and specialists play a vital role in overseeing a patient’s total health needs.
“Family medicine is designed to care for 80 to 90 percent of general patient issues,” says Dr. John Tipton, family medicine chair with Founders of Doctors’ Hospital. “Sometimes, however, patients develop a problem that becomes too difficult or severe to control, so they need someone specialized in dealing with the issue.”
Tipton and Dr. Stephen Barnes, doctor of osteopathy at OSU Medical Center, say that on average they refer 20 percent of their patients to specialists.
Specialists focus on one aspect of the body, such as the heart, skin, kidneys, digestive system, brain and nervous system, and bones.
A specialist may adjust a patient’s treatment, medication or lifestyle habits before sending the patient back to his or her general physician.
This practice emphasizes the relationship between specialists and general physicians and the importance of open communication between them. Of course, the goal of both the general doctor and specialist is to help patients feel better physically.
When matching a patient with a specialist, primary care doctors choose one they know will communicate with them.
“I want to be confident that the specialist will keep me abreast of my patient’s treatment,” Barnes says.
After a patient has seen a specialist, the general physician needs to know about the new treatment plan, how the patient’s progress should look and possible danger signs to watch for, he says.
Tipton says that because of continuing advances in many areas of medicine, specialists play an important role in patients’ overall health care.
“The amount of information available doubles every couple of years,” he says. “It takes a lot of work to stay on the cutting edge of medicine. I can’t know about all of the rare things that may occur with one patient out of 5,000 or 10,000 people.”
He cites just one example: a recent cardiac advancement in which an artificial heart valve is installed through a catheter. Replacing traditional open-heart surgery, the new treatment option is less invasive and more cost effective.
“Specialists are our second line of defense,” Barnes says. “Primary care physicians see a higher volume of patients with a wider variety of problems; whereas, specialists are more narrowed in their areas of treatment, and they know a lot more about their area of medicine.”
While primary care doctors perform more generalized exams, there are certain tests that only specialists can perform. Cardiologists perform angiograms, stress tests, echocardiograms and cardiac catheterization; neurologists perform electromyography studies; gastroenterologists perform colonoscopies; pulmonologists perform bronchoscopies; and so on.
Particularly as people age, specialists become a more prominent factor in their health care. For example, Dr. Jamal Hyder, internal medicine physician with St. John Medical Center, recommends that those over age 50 visit a gastroenterologist for early disease screening because of the increasing risk for various cancers.