Expert Q & A

Difference between a Primary Care Doctor and a Specialist

Oct 15, 2014 03:39PM
Question: How is an appointment with a specialist different from that with a regular doctor?

Patient Communications Expert,  Edward Leigh
Thank you for writing.

Appointments with a primary care physician, such as a family doctor, and a specialist are quite similar.  However, there are some important differences, which I will address in a moment.  With all appointments there are important items to keep in mind in preparing for the visit:

•    Write down all your questions, including questions about diagnosis, treatments, associated medications and side effects / risks.

•    Check to make sure all your insurance questions are addressed. You don’t want any surprises on the day of your visit!

•    When making the appointment be sure to include details about your concern so that a proper length of time can be scheduled.

•    If this is your first visit with this doctor, be sure to have detailed information about current / past health problems and treatments. An updated list of all your medications should be included too.  Some physician offices now request the actual pill containers be brought to the visit for further verification. Also, include medical histories of close family members, such as parents and siblings.  

•    If possible, plan to bring a family member or friend to the visit. It is always helpful to have an extra set of eyes and ears to take in all the information, especially if this is a complicated medical issue.

•    For additional information on preparing for your appointment, I highly recommend reading this article:

"Preparing for your doctor’s visit: 10 things to always bring."

The major difference between the primary care physician and specialist visit has to administrative and insurance guidelines. Check with your insurance company to determine the process for referrals.  Many insurance companies require a referral from a primary care physician.  Also, after the referral is made to the specialist, call the specialist’s office to double check on items you need to bring.  In addition, check to be sure all the necessary information was sent from your primary care physician.

Good luck to you.

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Edward Leigh, MA, focuses on helping patients and healthcare professionals effectively communicate with each other. Excellent communication skills dramatically enhance patient satisfaction and safety. He presents high-energy and informative programs for hospitals, healthcare associations, medical practices, government organizations and universities. He is also an in-demand consultant and coach. He has a master’s degree in health education.  For more information, go to
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