When to See a Women’s Health Specialist Instead of Your Primary Care Provider

female doctor talking to patient

“The OB-GYN is the gatekeeper in terms of women’s health,” said Dr. DaCarla Albright, MD, a physician practicing clinical obstetrics and gynecology here at Penn Medicine.

Like most OB-GYNs — obstetrician-gynecologists — Dr. Albright is a one-stop resource for all things related to women’s health issues and “diseases that specifically impact women.”

She sees patients throughout prenatal care and childbirth, guides them through contraception and infertility, and continues seeing them once “they are beyond their reproductive years.”

That being said, there is some overlap in what a women’s health specialist does and what your primary care provider can do. Sometimes, deciding which doctor to see isn’t always clear.

We asked Dr. Albright to highlight some of the differences between a women’s health specialist and a primary care provider, so that you can more easily decide where to schedule your next appointment.

Comfort and Convenience Are Key

If you have no pressing health concerns or specific gynecologic complaints, then seeing your primary care provider — an internist or family doctor — for routine gynecologic examinations could make sense for you. Maybe their practice is located close to your home or office. Or maybe it’s just a matter of familiarity: you know them well and trust them.

“Some internists and family medicine specialists can do general gynecology,” Dr. Albright said. “They do pap smears and STD screening. They also do breast exams. They can refer patients for breast screenings as recommended based on their age (plus or minus medical or family history). If the issue becomes more complicated, like the pap smear is abnormal and needs more investigation, or they have specific gynecologic concern, then that patient will be referred to me or one of my colleagues.”

If there are no major medical issues, “it may be easier to see one doctor,” Dr. Albright said. But complete comfort is paramount when it comes to women’s health, and “some women feel like they would prefer to see their primary care doctor for other things and to come to their women’s health specialist for their GYN exam.”

In other words, choosing where to receive your routine gynecologic exam is entirely up to you. 

More Comprehensive Women’s Healthcare

Developing a long-term and trusting relationship with your primary care provider is clearly beneficial to you — but the same is true of your OB-GYN.

Many women’s health specialists “manage their patients through their reproductive years and beyond,” Dr. Albright said. Your relationship with your OB-GYN could quite possibly last most of your life.

Dr. Albright said there are numerous upsides to having a long-standing rapport with your women’s health specialist. Knowing a patient for years or even decades means “that we can tailor our care based on our patients’ specific needs and be excellent resources and advocates for our patients within the health system,” she explained.

If those needs become more atypical, or more dire, then it benefits you to have a women’s health specialist who is already familiar with your medical history — someone with intimate knowledge of your many individual nuances and needs.

“Although we are not primary care providers, we remain familiar with many common medical problems such as hypertension, diabetes and thyroid disorders,” Dr. Albright said. “In those cases, we may be uniquely poised to educate the patient on the potential reproductive impact, as well as any future concerns to her health. I believe this perspective lends itself to being the advocate for a woman’s overall health and well being.”

Penn Medicine’s many experienced specialists develop lasting relationships with their patients, and they run the gamut when it comes to comprehensive women’s healthcare. Among the many conditions and procedures addressed by Dr. Albright and the other women’s health specialists at Penn Medicine are:

Learn more about Penn Medicine's comprehensive Obstetrical Care and General Gynecology.

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