Some health insurance plans allow patients to see a specialist without obtaining a referral from their regular or primary care doctor. This differs from plans that first require a visit to a primary care provider. Before seeking specialty care, it is helpful to know what type of doctor can best manage your medical condition.
Although it is always best to ask for your doctor’s opinion, even when a referral is not needed, this list will provide some guidance. You will learn about each type of specialist, and understand which problems they treat. With this knowledge, you can look for options in your town or municipality, and those who accept your health insurance. Recommendations from family members, friends, or other health care providers can help with your decision.
What Kind of Doctor Do I Need?
One bit of advice I learned years ago is to ask a nurse. Because they work directly with doctors, nurses often know the best ones! Specialty doctors provide medical management of specific problems, and some do surgery. They may have one of two degrees: MD (medical doctor) or DO (doctor of osteopathy). The basic training is similar for both, so the type of degree typically does not influence the type of care provided. Most of the specialists on this list are not surgeons. If you need more information about surgery and surgeons see: What Kind of Surgeon Do I Need?
- An allergist/immunologist is a doctor who specializes in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of allergies and immune system disorders. An allergy is an adverse immune system reaction to something to which it is sensitive. This sensitivity can develop after several asymptomatic exposures, or due to hereditary predisposition. Things that can trigger the immune system, such as pollen, foods, mold, smoke, or medicines, are called allergens. They cause allergic reactions or allergies. Allergy symptoms can vary based on the type of allergen, and how sensitive a person is to it. For example, seasonal allergy symptoms may involve sneezing, tears in the eyes, and a runny nose. Allergy symptoms that are associated with asthma or a severe allergic reactions include shortness of breath, chest tightness and trouble breathing. Severe reactions often require emergency treatment. An allergist specializes in identifying the causes of such reactions, and recommends treatment. This may include avoiding the allergen as well as medications to reduce the symptoms. For cases of potentially life-threatening reactions to foods or venomous insect stings, a rescue medication may be prescribed in case of an accidental exposure. For some patients, allergists may administer desensitization shots or oral therapies to decrease the severity of reactions.
- An allergist/immunologist often treats asthma, anaphylaxis, environmental allergies, eczema, urticaria, and adverse reactions to drugs, foods, and insect stings. They also manage problems related to an inherent or acquired immunodeficiency, and immunosuppression following an organ transplantation. Immune system disorders include severe combined immunodeficiency (SCIDS), isolated antibody problems, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
- Anesthesia is specifically defined as “the loss of all sensation” and awareness. An anesthesiologist is a doctor who administers anesthesia, or “puts you to sleep,” during surgery or certain diagnostic procedures. When having a baby, they provide epidural or spinal anesthesia. These doctors also decide how much and what kind of anesthesia is needed. Depending on the type of procedure, local or general anesthesia can be administered. While receiving anesthesia, they also monitor your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, watching for signs of trouble. They adjust the amount of medication and breathing support to prevent an emergency or problem.
- In addition, anesthesiologists monitor your progress as you wake up, checking for any complications or difficulty breathing. For patients who go to the emergency room for heart or breathing emergencies, anesthesiologists may be involved in the resuscitation. Outside of hospital settings, some anesthesiologists manage pain after surgery, work in pain control clinics, perform epidural injections for back pain, and provide anesthesia for tests such as a colonoscopy.
- A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and managing heart disease. Common conditions that a cardiologist sees are heart failure, mitral valve prolapse, cardiomyopathy, and high blood pressure. They also provide care for infants and children who are born with a heart defect. When someone has a heart attack, cardiologists will see him or her in the hospital once stabilized in the emergency room.
- There are a variety of reasons to see a cardiologist: These include:
- non-emergent chest pain (angina)
- irregular heart beats (arrhythmias)
- heart murmurs
- heart valve disorders
- heart muscle disease
- pulmonary hypertension
- pericarditis (inflammation of the sac around the heart)
- low or high blood pressure
- coronary artery disease
- heart tumors
- Before a medical procedure or beginning certain medications, clearance by a cardiologist may be necessary. To make a diagnosis or to screen for problems, cardiologists do a variety of tests:
- electrocardiogram (EKG) – evaluates heart rhythms
- Doppler echocardiogram – an ultrasound of the heart with real-time blood flow measurements
- stress test including nuclear stress test – an exercise test performed wile monitoring heart function
- cardiac catheterization – used to detect and treat coronary artery blockages
An interventional cardiologist performs invasive procedures such as cardiac catheterization (heart cath), angioplasty, and stent insertion into the blood vessels of the heart. These procedures are typically performed with the assistance of an anesthesiologist and radiologist.
A dermatologist is a doctor who specializes in disorders of the skin, hair, and nails. When a patient has an unusual rash or skin problem, primary care doctors often refer patients to this type of specialist. Some of the common problems that dermatologists address include:
- moles and birthmarks
- nail fungal infections
- skin cancer
- excessive sweating
- These specialists often perform simple office procedures using local anesthesia such as wart treatments, skin biopsies, and excision of cancerous lesions. They may also treat hair loss, pigmentary disorders, and scars or keloids. Many provide aesthetic treatments that help to improve the appearance of skin.
- American Academy of Dermatology
- Emergency medicine doctors provide acute care in an urgent care center or hospital emergency room. They are specialists in managing life-threatening illnesses, accidents, and injuries. In addition, they manage more common illnesses such as dehydration from a stomach virus, and difficulty breathing due to asthma or an allergic reaction. Emergency room physicians also suture simple lacerations, manage fractures, and can provide services for patients with mental health crises.
An endocrinologist diagnoses and treats disorders of glands and hormones. The endocrine system consists of:
- thyroid – regulates the body’s metabolism and energy level
- parathyroid – regulates calcium and phosphorus for bone health
- adrenal glands – regulates water balance and produces steroid hormones, epinephrine, and norepinephrine
- ovaries – produces and regulates female hormones
- testes – produces and regulates male hormones
- pancreas – secretes insulin and glucagon to regulate blood sugar
- pituitary gland – produces oxytocin and ADH, and secretes precursors for hormones of other glands
Endocrinologists manage the over-production or under-production of hormones. Some examples include hyperthyroidism or Grave’s disease (overactive thyroid), hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (under-active thyroid), hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes (high blood sugar), and steroid production problems such as Addison’s disease, Cushing’s Syndrome. They also identify and manage pituitary tumors and thyroid gland goiters.
- This type of doctor is actually a primary care physician, not a specialist. Family practitioners typically coordinate health care, and can manage the medical needs of the an entire family. Because they receive training in delivering babies, care of children, and managing adult medical conditions, patients may see the same doctor from birth through the geriatric years. Although they do not perform surgeries, family practitioners can do simple office procedures such as suturing lacerations, removing warts, and draining abscesses.
- A family practitioner is a good place to start for well check ups and routine illnesses. If you have an unusual collection of symptoms or a rare disease like Chagas or Bourbon, this doctor will likely refer you to the correct specialist.
- An gastroenterologist is a doctor who diagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive system which consists of the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, duodenum, large intestine, and rectum. The also manage problems of the pancreas, liver, gallbladder, and biliary system.
- Disorders that are specifically managed by a gastroenterologist include:
- Esophagus: difficulty swallowing, GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), hiatal hernia
- Stomach: peptic ulcer, indigestion
- Liver: cirrhosis, hepatitis, jaundice
- Gall Bladder: cholecystitis
- Intestines: diverticulitis/diverticulosis, inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, constipation
- Rectum: hemorrhoids
In order to diagnose these conditions, gastroenterologists may perform a variety of tests. These may be blood or stool tests in addition to procedural ones. Endoscopy involves viewing the upper GI tract using a catheter with a camera. Similarly, such a catheter can be used to view the rectum and intestines. Both procedures are performed under anesthesia. With these techniques, sources of bleeding, ulcers, inflammation, polyps, and tumors can be visualized. See a gastroenterologist for blood in the stool.
- Geriatricians are a very specialized type of adult doctor. They solely care older adults (health for seniors). They are trained to recognize unusual presentations of illness and drug interactions that can adversely affect the health of seniors. Common geriatric conditions include incontinence, falls, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other dementias.
- A gynecologist specializes in women’s reproductive health. Although they are primary care physicians, some health insurance companies classify them as specialists. Obstetric care includes delivering babies, and performing surgeries such as a c-section (cesarean), episiotomy, and hysterectomy. Gynecology refers to treating disorders such as ovulation problems, cervical cancer, uterine bleeding, painful periods, endometriosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, sexually transmitted diseases, uterine fibroids, and breast disorders. Some of these doctors provide both types of care, while others focus their practices on just gynecology.
- A perinatologist also cares for pregnant women, but specializes in managing difficult pregnancies such as gestational diabetes, preeclampsia, and preterm birth.
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
- This type of doctor specializes in blood disorders and cancer treatments. These specialists often gear their medical practice toward just hematology or oncology. A hematologist manages disorders of the blood, spleen and lymph nodes. Examples include anemia, clotting disorders, hemophilia, low platelet counts, and sickle cell disease. Oncologists treat malignant tumors, and cancers of the white cells and bone marrow (lymphoma or leukemia). These doctors perform special types of blood tests, and biopsies of the bone marrow, lymph nodes, or tumor for analysis. Tumors can be benign (non-cancerous) or malignant (cancerous). Once the diagnosis has been determined, the hematologist or oncologist determines the most appropriate treatment. Anemia, for example, may be managed with oral iron supplements or a blood transfusion. Pain management, vaccinations against certain bacterial infections, and blood transfusions may be part of a sickle cell patient’s treatment plan. Chemotherapy, radiation treatments, or surgery may be recommended depending on the type of cancer.
- A hospitalist is a general physician, pediatrician, internist, or family practitioner who only works in a hospital setting. They decide the appropriate medication doses, intravenous fluids, and other hospital services a patient may receive. Hospitalists are often in direct contact with primary care doctors to help coordinate care. If a patient has no primary care doctor, the hospitalist is responsible for the care that patient receives. Hospitalists can also act as a consultants on surgical patients. In addition, intensivists are hospitalists that specialize in intensive care medicine. They care for the most critically ill patients in the intensive or cardiac care units.
Infectious Disease Specialist
- An infectious disease specialist diagnoses and treats infections caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, or unknown origins. In most cases, these specialists treat infections that have not responded to treatments provided by your regular doctor. They also manage more serious and life threatening infections such as HIV, tuberculosis, and MRSA. Some examples include:
- worm infestations (tapeworm)
- zoonoses (rabies)
- tick-borne illnesses (Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever)
- candida infections in immunocompromised patients
- TORCH infections (those transmitted to an unborn baby)
Once the correct diagnosis is made, these specialists develop an appropriate treatment plan. This may entail prescribing antibiotics, anti-fungals, anti-parasitics, or anti-tuberculous medications. Infectious disease specialists also manage fevers of unknown origin. These are fevers that persist longer than the typical three to five days, and the source has not been discovered by routine tests.
- Internists are doctors who provide primary care for adults, and, occasionally, older adolescents. They do not perform surgeries, deliver babies, or treat children. During their three years of training, these doctors develop skills in emergency medicine, hospital medicine, geriatrics, and adult outpatient care. Patients see internists for routine well visits, and chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and obesity. They may do noninvasive office tests such as an EKG or a urinalysis.
A nephrologist specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of kidney diseases. Patients with abnormalities on diagnostic kidney or urine tests are referred to this type of doctor. In contrast, most patients with urinary tract disorders are seen by a urologist. Nephrologists determine which radiologic studies will best reveal a renal system problem. They order treatments, and establish dietary restrictions for patients with kidney disease or who require dialysis. They also collaborate with urologists and surgeons to assist in kidney transplants and other surgeries.
Conditions that nephrologists treat include:
- acute and chronic kidney (renal) failure
- high blood pressure
- fluid and electrolyte imbalances
- glomerulonephritis (inflammation of the kidneys)
- kidney stones
- polycystic kidney disease
- acute tubular necrosis
Nephrologists can also perform kidney biopsies.
A neurologist diagnoses, treats, and manages any disorder of the brain, spinal cord, or nerves of the body. These include brain and spinal cord injuries. Neurologists also treat problems associated with the nerves that supply muscles and organs as well as the neurological problems caused by bleeding or blood clots. Some of these conditions are:
- dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease
- movement disorders (Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorders
- migraine headaches
- chronic pain
- autoimmune disorders of the nerves (Guillain-Barré, myasthenia gravis)
- brain tumors and infections
- cerebral palsy
- traumatic brain or head injuries
Neurologists may perform a variety of tests to help determine the correct diagnosis. An electroencephalogram (EEG) can measure brain activity and detect seizures, and electromyography (EMG) directly measures nerve impulses within muscles. They may also perform a lumbar puncture to test the fluid around the spinal cord for infections. In trauma cases, neurologists can evaluate the extent of injuries with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, and evaluated the blood vessels of the brain with magnetic resonance angiography (MRA). Once the correct diagnosis is known, neurologists develop a treatment plan that may include medications, physical therapy, and other forms of rehabilitation.
Nuclear Medicine Physician
Nuclear medicine is a way to diagnose illnesses using a radioactive dye to highlight the area of concern. A nuclear medicine physician is a radiologist who uses such techniques to diagnose illnesses. They use specific scanning machines to generate images of a person’s internal organs. These tests can detect thyroid nodules, and evaluate heart or kidney function. Nuclear medicine specialists may also use radioactive drugs to treat certain types of cancers.
- Ophthalmologists and optometrists specialize in disorders of the eye and vision. These two specialists differ in the kind of training received. Ophthalmologists are medical doctors (MD) who complete a residency in ophthalmology which includes surgical training. Optometrists receive a doctor of optometry degree (OD) after completing four years of study in eye diseases and vision correction. Both specialists diagnose nearsightedness and farsightedness, and prescribe glasses or contact lenses. Optometrists often detect eye problems, then refer patients to ophthalmologists for further treatment. Common conditions include eye disease associated with high blood pressure or diabetes, glaucoma, inflammation (uveitis and iritis), disorders of the retina, cataracts, and conjunctivitis. Laser, cataract, and retinal surgeries are always done by ophthalmologists.
An orthopedist is a doctor who specializes in the bones and all of the associated ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Because this field of medicine is so vast, many orthopedists focus on one particular area of interest instead of the whole skeletal system. They may manage problems with or without surgery. Some common orthopedic surgeries are hip, knee and shoulder replacements, knee arthroscopy and spinal fusion. Orthopedists also treat the following musculoskeletal disorders:
- osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease)
- carpal tunnel syndrome
- chronic low back pain
- disc disease (degenerative, herniation)
- curvatures of the spine (scoliosis, kyphosis, lordosis),
- gout and pseudogout
- plantar fasciitis
- Achilles Tendonitis,
- spine fusion and mobility problems (spinal stenosis, spondylolisthesis)
Orthopedists manage common and sports injuries such as ligament and tendon tears, strains, sprains, and bone fractures. They also treat neck and shoulder problems such as whiplash, torticollis, frozen shoulder, and joint dislocations. A variety of treatment modalities may be employed to avoid surgery such as anti-inflammatory medication, cortisone injections, and physical therapy. However, in situations of complex fractures or tendon/ligament tears, surgery is often necessary.
- An otolaryngologist specializes in disorders of the head and neck, specifically the ears, nose, and throat. Because of the latter, these specialists are commonly known as ENT doctors. They may treat with medication or surgery. These are the doctors who would perform a tonsillectomy or adenoidectomy. Disorders that may warrant a visit to an ENT include chronic ear infections (otitis media), hearing loss, perforated ear drums, middle ear cysts, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), chronic dizziness (vertigo), and nosebleeds. For individuals who have sleep apnea, these specialists may order a sleep study.
Pain Management Specialist
- Pain management specialists treat a variety of pain types. These doctors are usually anesthesiologists with special training in pain management. Chronic pain is defined as that which lasts more than 3 months. Those who suffer from chronic pain benefit from outpatient pain management. Treatments include prescription pain patches or pills, nerve block injections, and referrals to physical therapy, massage therapists, and acupuncturists.
- Pediatricians are primary care physicians who specialize in the medical care of newborns, infants, children and adolescents. Some care for patients up to age 18, while others continue seeing young adults throughout their college years. Pediatricians are particularly concerned about growth and development, and track it at well office visits. They provide the recommended infant and child vaccines, and offer advice on healthy lifestyle habits. General pediatricians manage common colds, ear infections, rashes, constipation, asthma, allergies, and minor injuries. They can also can identify signs of congenital heart disease, diabetes, thyroid problems, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, and autism. When specialty care is needed, they refer patients to the appropriate pediatric sub-specialist.
Foot disorders are often managed by a podiatrist. This type of specialist is similar to an orthopedist, but one who specifically addresses foot problems. He or she can do in-office simple procedures such as removing ingrown toenails or warts as well more complex surgeries in an operating room. Common foot conditions that a podiatrist treats include:
- flat feet
- plantar fasciitis
- hammer toes
- achilles tendonitis
- callouses and warts
- heel pain and spurs
- foot stress fractures
- physical deformities of the foot and ankle.
Some podiatrists treat sports injuries of the feet and ankles. They may also recommend and custom fit orthotics such as sock liners and arch supports.
- A psychiatrist is a doctor who specializes in mental health conditions. Unlike psychologists or licensed therapists, psychiatrists can prescribe medications. They often collaborate with psychologists and primary care providers to develop the best treatment plan for patients. In addition to treating depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder, they can also provide assistance to patients with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and substance abuse. When someone goes to the emergency room because of a mental health crisis, psychiatrists are consulted. They also provide assistance in managing the behavioral concerns of patients with autism and developmental disabilities.
- Psychologist are specialists with a PhD in mental health disorders. They are experts in diagnosing and providing therapy for anyone with depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and other psychological problems. They can also help manage the psychological component of eating disorders. Some psychologists only provide care for adults or children of certain age groups. Others may offer neuropsychological testing to identify learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Psychologists are not medical doctors (MD), so they do not have a license to prescribe medication. However, they often work closely with psychiatrists and primary care providers.
Pulmonologists specialize in disorders of the lungs and chest (respiratory disorders). When a particular lung problem is not responding to the usual treatments prescribed by a primary care doctor, a pulmonology evaluation is often helpful. They see patients in an office setting, and are consulted to help manage more serious conditions if they are hospitalized. Pulmonologists manage:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- lung infections (bronchitis, tuberculosis, pneumonia)
- collapsed lungs (atelectasis, pneumothorax)
- cystic fibrosis
In a hospital setting, they assist emergency room doctors and hospitalists in managing respiratory distress (ARDS, SARS), collapsed lungs (atelectasis, pneumothorax), pulmonary embolisms, and fluid collections around the lungs (pleural effusion). Pulmonologists evaluate lung function with pulmonary function tests, then recommend the most appropriate treatment. In rare cases, they perform a bronchoscopy in which a camera is inserted into the airways to better assess problems. This procedure is done under anesthesia, and biopsies may be taken if needed.
- These specialists are experts in interpreting x-rays and other diagnostic studies such as MRIs, CT scans, mammograms, and sonograms. Interventional radiologists use imaging to perform biopsies and angiograms. They may also assist pain management specialists with epidural injections, and oncologists by directly injecting chemotherapy into tumors.
- Radiation oncologists administer a specific type of cancer treatment. They use a device that directs high beam radiation at a tumor in order to kill the cancer cells. They determine where the radiation goes, the type needed, and the dosage for the type of cancer. These specialists work closely with oncologists.
- Rheumatologists manage autoimmune disorders that affect joints, the skin, connective tissues, and organs. They often see patients who have unusual symptoms for which no known cause has been found. They diagnose and treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, psoriatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, lupus, and sarcoidosis. After reviewing the results of blood tests and radiologic studies, they often recommend anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive medications.
Urologists specialize in the urinary tract which includes the ureters, kidneys, bladder and, prostate (for men). They have surgical training to manage problems that require surgery. Disorders that may require the expertise of a urologist include:
- kidney stones
- kidney infections (pyelonephritis)
- prostate problems (inflammation, benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH))
- sexually transmitted diseasse (chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, genital herpes)
- dilated kidney (hydronephrosis)
- ejaculation problems and erectile dysfunction
- vesicoureteral obstruction
Urologists evaluate the anatomy and function of the urinary system with urine tests, x-rays, ultrasound, or a dye-flow study.
A vascular surgeon is a medical doctor who performs operations on the heart, arteries, and veins. This category includes cardiothoracic surgeons, general thoracic surgeons, and congenital heart surgeons.
The following is a list of surgeries performed by a thoracic surgeon.
- For a hernia repair, you should see a general surgeon. If you are diagnosed with appendicitis, this type of specialist will do your surgery.
- For more information about the different types of surgeons and what operations they perform.