- Approaching an appointment with a specialist is different than with a primary care physician
- While doctor-patient fit is critical with your internist, it's secondary to feeling confident in technical prowess with a specialist
- You shouldn't assume your medical information will make its way from your primary care physician to your specialist
- Make sure the specialist knows what medications you’re already taking and the diseases or conditions you have
What Is Specialty and Subspecialty Medicine?
The explosive growth of specialty and subspecialty medicine has provided huge health and quality of life improvements for many. Specialty medicine allows patients to receive more focused care relating to a specific aspect of their health — i.e. dermatology for the skin or ophthalmology for the eyes. A subspecialist narrows this focus even further, practicing within a range of a specialty. For example, oncologists, gastroenterologists, and geriatricians are all subspecialities of internal medicine.
Approaching an appointment with a specialist is different than with a primary care physician, particularly if you’re seeing them for the first time. Doing a little bit of preparation before or after the appointment ensures that you can get the most out of your time with them.
How To Prepare For an Appointment
The more doctors you have, the more medical information there will be to keep track of. Here are a few critical steps you can take to ensure everyone is on the same page when seeing a specialist.
- Don’t assume your medical information will make its way from your primary care physician to your specialist: Even with the multitude of electronic health records available, it’s likely that a specialist or subspecialist may not have a full picture of why you’re coming to see them once you’re in their office. When your physician fills out a consultation request form (a note with a sentence or two that describes the reason for referral), ask for a copy and bring it to the appointment. If it doesn’t give enough detail, provide more to the specialist in your own words.
- Make sure the specialist knows what medications you’re taking: It’s important to bring your Medical 101 Sheet with you to your appointment. This way, your doctor can be mindful of any treatments that could interact with medications you’re already taking, or the diseases or conditions you have.
- Make sure information from the specialist flows back to your primary care doctor: In the same way that you have to make sure the specialist understands why you’re in their office, it’s important to ensure that whatever your specialist does or discovers is conveyed to your regular doctor. In nearly all cases, specialists send a letter to your doctor indicating what they did or found, but sometimes, busier doctors don’t do this or the consultation letter is so delayed that it doesn’t make it into your chart for weeks or months. When you’re leaving your appointment, ask the specialist when and how they will be conveying information to your doctor or request a note outlining their findings before you leave.
- Keep track of your medical records: It’s important for you or your loved one to have real time access to medical records, especially since you may be traversing several health systems. Test results, routine and otherwise, belong to you, not your hospital or health care system — things like X-rays, MRIs, CT scans, and more. This could be as simple as a physical manilla folder with the information or a digital copy stored in the photos or files section of your phone. Most doctors, hospitals, and labs have patient portals so you can see and download these records directly.
What To Look For In a Specialist
Doctor-patient fit is essential with your primary care physician, but with a specialist, barring inappropriate behavior, it's secondary to feeling confident in their technical prowess.
Through the course of being a patient, it’s likely you won’t click with every physician that you see. But too often, patients judge specialists first on affability and availability instead of ability — and that should be flipped. Your encounters with specialists will likely be brief and more limited than with your primary care physician. If you feel confident in their abilities and find that they’re well-respected, it’s okay if you don’t have the same connection with them that you do with your primary care physician.
Make sure your team is in lockstep. While specialty and subspecialty care is a critical piece of the equation, your primary care physician is the conductor of the orchestra, making sure that the many people who provide care and prescribe medications are coordinated. It's important to take the extra time to prepare for appointments with specialists and make sure the dots stay connected. This prevents miscommunication and allows you to maintain control over your care.