Different diseases and conditions require the expertise of different doctors. However, most Americans only have a relationship with a single doctor, usually a general practitioner. If general practitioners can handle the majority of needs, what role do specialists play? And how should a general practitioner know when it’s time to recommend their patients to a specialist?

Generally speaking, general practitioners are trained and equipped to handle the majority of common ailments that their patients will face. They can prescribe medication, administer vaccines, and run annual physicals and checkups. Many can also perform basic women’s health care services like mammograms and pap smears. Their ability to treat a wide variety of needs makes things convenient for their patients, because those patients don’t have to spend valuable time going to multiple clinics. Say that a patient visits with bronchitis, but they also need to have a blood pressure medication prescription renewed. A general practitioner can take care of both of these needs in the same visit.

However, general practitioners aren’t able to focus too much on any one area of medicine. They are great for general needs, but they can’t handle some specific ones. If a patient comes in with an ailment that affects a particular part of the body, like a bleeding ulcer for example, the general practitioner may not have the expertise to adequately diagnose or treat the problem. It’s at this point that the physician will recommend their patient to someone who can help. These specialists focus their entire careers on particular areas of medicine, so they have the resources and knowledge to help a patient when the general practitioner may be unable to do so.

These two sorts of physicians must work together in order to provide the best patient care. If a patient relies solely on a general practitioner, that physician will usually recognize when their expertise has run out and can recommend the patient to the proper specialist. However, sometimes a general practitioner can miss specific symptoms that a specialist would notice. If a patient has seen a general practitioner and their symptoms have not yet resolved, it may be necessary for them to visit a specialist for a second opinion. At the same time, most patients cannot and should not visit specialists every time they visit the doctor. General practitioners tend to be both more affordable and more accessible, giving patients a wider variety of options for managing their health.