How Your Primary Care Physician and Specialists Work Together

There are many reasons you might need to see a doctor. You may see a primary care physician (PCP) for a yearly checkup, when you’re feeling sick, or for preventive care such as screenings and immunizations. Other times, you may need to see a doctor who specializes in one type of disease or body system, such as an oncologist for cancer treatment or a cardiologist for heart trouble.

While they may treat different things, primary care physicians and specialists need to work together to provide patients with the best possible care. UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD, and UNC Health cardiologist Christopher Kelly, MD, explain how primary care physicians and specialists collaborate and why it’s important to have a primary care physician even when you’re seeing a specialist.

A Primary Care Physician Can Help You Stay Healthy

Most of your health needs can be addressed by a primary care physician. Trained in medical specialties such as family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics, primary care providers have broad knowledge of diseases, injuries and other medical conditions.

Your primary care physician can help keep track of important tests and exams you may need such as cancer screenings. If something is wrong, they are more likely to catch it early—before it can become a serious medical problem.

“There are a lot of things we can do as primary care physicians besides preventive care and treating you when you have the flu. We can treat rashes, take a look at a suspicious mole, do your Pap test and provide your birth control,” Dr. Ruff says. “The benefit of seeing a primary care physician for these types of things is that they are a little bit quicker to get in to see, you have someone who knows everything about you, and you don’t have to pay the specialist copay.”

Primary care physicians know the medications you are taking and your medication history.

Your medications are part of your medical records: what you are taking now and what you have taken in the past, and whether it worked for you. Even if another doctor prescribed a medicine, your primary care physician can keep a record of what it was, the dose, how long you took it and whether you experienced side effects. This can help you avoid serious drug interactions or side effects.

A Primary Care Physician Can Refer You to the Right Specialist

Because your primary care physician gets to know a lot about you and your health, they are the best person to refer you to a specialist to get treatment for a particular problem. Primary care doctors can recommend specialists they know to be skilled and compassionate, or especially experienced in your unique medical concerns.

“It’s the job of the primary care physician to evaluate whatever symptoms or problems the patient is facing and decide when to get a specialist like myself involved,” Dr. Kelly says. “Almost all the patients that I see have come to me because their primary care physician feels like there is a likely or definite heart problem that is beyond the scope of their practice and requires the assistance of a specialist.”

Sometimes a patient needs to see the specialist just once. Other times, a specialist will need to follow a patient for years.

“Once I see a patient, I’ll assess their problem. If there are things that are really cardiology only, I’ll go ahead and treat those,” Dr. Kelly says. “If there are problems that intersect with the issues that their primary care physician is managing, for example, their blood pressure control, then often I’ll make some recommendations but send those back to the primary care physician to implement.”

Primary Care Physicians Help Manage Your Care Even When You Need a Specialist

It’s important that patients have a primary care physician even if they also see a specialist.

Specialists communicate and coordinate care with a patient’s primary care physician even if they are seeing a patient for a chronic condition throughout the patient’s life.

“We’re a team. I always think of myself as a manager of the patient and that patient’s home base, so even for patients who have cancer and need chemo, radiation or surgery, I’m the one who’s reading all the notes from all the specialists and talking to them,” Dr. Ruff says. “I know their history, and I can help them navigate the big picture because I see it all.”

Need a primary care physician? Find one near you.