When to see a specialist — and how to prepare

by Kaiser Permanente |
A man consults a doctor.

Whether it’s a trip to the Emergency Department or a test for an illness, even the healthiest person may need to visit a specialist at some point. Specialty care can focus on any disease or part of the body, from dermatology (for skin) to gastroenterology (for digestion) to oncology (for cancer).

Read on to learn how specialty care works and how you can get the best possible outcome from your care.

What’s the difference between primary and specialty care?

Your primary care provider is grounded in many fields of medicine and offers preventive and general care. In partnership with your care team, they’ll help identify any specialized medical needs and connect you to the right care for you.

A specialist offers expertise on a specific illness, organ, or system.

For example:

  • If you have a mole that’s changed size or color, a dermatologist will be able to screen it for skin cancer.
  • If you often feel nauseated but don’t know why, a gastroenterologist can help figure out the cause.

Remember, you don’t need a referral from your primary care provider for ob-gyn or mental health services.

How do I know if I’m seeing a specialist?

If you’re ever unsure, you can talk to your primary care provider, look up the doctor on kp.org, or ask at reception when you check in.

What should I ask my specialist?

"The first visit is important for gathering information," says Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, chief of service, Dermatology, for Kaiser Permanente San Diego. "Be sure to ask what the next steps are, and what’s the expected course of treatment. Often the problems requiring a specialist are more complex, so more than one appointment might be needed to establish the correct diagnosis and the best treatment plan."

When it comes to medical care, better communication leads to better outcomes. Be as specific as you can about your symptoms, and always answer your doctor’s questions honestly. Never be afraid to ask your doctor to explain anything you don’t understand.

Here’s a list of questions typically covered in your conversation with your specialist.

  • What are my treatment options?
  • What are the potential risks and benefits of each?
  • Can you create a treatment plan around my unique needs and concerns?
  • How do I contact you between visits, if necessary?
  • When should I come in for a follow-up visit?

Take control of your experience

Remember, your care plan is centered around your needs. Your doctor, specialist, and care team are all here to help you. And Kaiser Permanente’s integrated model means that your primary care provider coordinates with your specialist, supporting your care every step of the way.

If you have an upcoming visit with a specialist, you can check your coverage to find out what your visit will cost before you go. And it’s always a good idea to list your questions and concerns in advance — being prepared will help put you in charge of your care experience.