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How to Choose a Medical Specialist

People who are generally healthy obtain the majority of their medical care from a general practitioner or primary care physician (PCP). However, if you become seriously injured, critically ill or develop a chronic illness, like heart disease or diabetes, you may have to see a medical specialist who has specific training in treating your illness.

Medical specialists are physicians who have completed advanced clinical training and education in their specialty area of medicine. Examples of medical specialists include cardiologists, anesthesiologists, urologists, gynecologists, gastroenterologists, allergists, orthopedic surgeons, and a host of other medical specialty doctors.

Choosing a medical specialist has both similarities and differences to choosing a PCP. Obviously, you want someone who provides quality medical care, but you also want someone who you feel comfortable with and have confidence in.

Here are several factors you should consider in choosing a medical specialist.

Narrow Down the Specialty

The first thing you need to do is to determine the type of specialist you need to see. Your PCP can point you in the right direction, as well as provide you with a name of medical specialist. However, it is a good idea to obtain a few names of medical specialists, so you can choose the one that you are most comfortable with.

Years in Practice

Once you receive a few medical specialist referrals from your PCP, conduct research regarding each specialist's background. One qualification area you'll want to know is how long the specialist has been in practice. For example, you may not feel comfortable seeing a specialist that just completed his residency, particularly if it is a surgical procedure.

Board Certification

Is the specialist you are considering going to certified in her field? Being board certified means that the doctor has had specific training in her area of specialty or sub-specialty. For instance, a plastic surgeon should be certified by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. The American Board of Medical Specialties is a helpful resource to determine a specialist's board certification status.

Number of Procedures

Another key question to ask when choosing a medical specialist relates to the number of procedures that the specialist has performed. This is particularly important for surgeons or for other specialists that perform invasive diagnostic tests, like a colonoscopy. While the comfort level of number of procedures that a particular medical specialist has performed is subjective, at least if you ask the question, you'll be knowledgeable about how experienced the specialist is in performing the procedure that you need to have done.


While complaints against a doctor don't necessarily mean he is a bad specialist, it does warrant further investigation. If the specialist has received a long list of complaints that haven't been resolved satisfactorily, it's a red flag – and you might want to consider another specialist.


Your PCP may be able to help you narrow down your choice of specialists. Because your PCP is in tune with the professional medical community, he may know which specialist may be best suited for your ailment and medical situation. Friends, relatives and coworkers are also good sources of help in choosing a medical specialist, especially if they have had the same medical condition as you.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, there are a number of factors to consider when choosing a medical specialist – and the list presented here is by no means exhaustive. Conduct as much research and ask as many questions as you need to in order to feel confident in your medical specialist choice.

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