With upwards of 1 million licensed doctors in the United States, there have never been more caretakers to help you maintain perfect health. But nearly all patients would agree that finding the right Doc can be tricky. Yes, most doctors wear a white coat or a pair of scrubs, and can be found in hospitals or steely offices — but the truth is that doctors are vastly different from one another, and most have an expertise in one particular area of medicine. There are hundreds of documented medical specialities and related certifications that physicians can pursue in their career, and there is often a special doctor for each affliction or illness, no matter how complex or rare that condition may be.
Where does one start when faced with a specific health issue? First step: It’s a good idea to establish care with a primary care doctor, so that you have someone to oversee your healthcare treatment. They’ll work with other doctors when the time comes, too: “Your primary care provider is an important first stop when receiving care, and they can help you to determine when you may need to see a specialist,” says Craig Hersh, M.D., a board certified family medicine physician and the Chief Medical Officer for Empire BlueCross BlueShield.
“Think of your primary care provider as the front door to the healthcare system, who can also help you navigate and work with the specialist who best matches your needs,” Dr. Hersh tells Good Housekeeping.
Sometimes, though, you might need direct access to a specialist — say, if you’ve moved recently and don’t have a primary care provider just yet. With the help of Dr. Hersh, we’ll explore the most common types of doctors you’ll likely turn to for help in your lifetime — each of these 26 specialists can help address unique health concerns, and may finally get you the treatment you’ve been searching for.
This article generalizes the roles and descriptions of common doctors and specialists: It isn’t intended to be a complete list, nor is it reflective of laws, statutes, regulations, license issues, or Medical Practice Acts by state. It is meant to be educational in nature and isn’t a substitute for actual medical or treatment advice from a licensed professional. Remember: Always call 911 if you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency.
Primary care providers | Internist | Pediatrician | Geriatric specialists | Gynecologist, OB/GYN | Dermatologist | Allergist | Cardiologist | Ophthalmologist |Endocrinologist | Gastroenterologist | Geneticist| Hematologist | Neurologist | Otolaryngologist |Podiatrist |Pulmonologist| Nephrologist | Infectious disease specialists | Oncologist |Osteopath | Radiologists | Urologist | Plastic surgeons|Mental health care providers
Primary care providers:
Also known as a family physician, a primary care provider is in charge of handling your routine healthcare appointments, including annual physicals and vaccinations over time. Primary care doctors should always be your first call if you have a health concern that isn’t an emergency, as they can help treat everything from the common cold to a physical injury. More often than not, they’ll attempt to alleviate any symptoms you are experiencing; they may also refer you to another doctor or specialist.
A primary care provider can treat symptoms associated with conditions like:
AsthmaRashTopical burnsFevers or coldsNauseaDiarrhea or gastrointestinal distressBody pains and achesHeadachesEar or sinus painCoughs and sore throatsBumps, cuts, and scrapesAllergic reactionsUrinary issuesDiabetesEye pain or irritation
These doctors work similarly to a primary care provider, in that they can see a patient routinely over their lifetime; unlike their counterparts, however, they usually have a background in internal medicine and spend their time in hospitals. Internists don’t usually treat children or preteens, but care for anyone else from young adults to elderly patients, especially those who need help in diagnosing or managing chronic conditions or diseases. They may specialize in certain areas as well, like gastroenterology.
Pediatricians handle scheduled care and check-ins for infants, toddlers, younger children, adolescents, preteens, and most teenagers. They function like a primary care provider, designed for children specifically, but also keep kids’ vaccinations up to date and do important screenings as they get older. Pediatricians are also a good point of contact to discuss any particular health concerns or questions about your child’s physical or mental development.
Some elderly individuals may transition from a primary care doctor to what’s know in the healthcare space as a geriatric specialist. Geriatricians take over primary care of people who are aging, and can help manage conditions that particularly impact the elderly, everything from severe arthritic pain to diabetes and dementia. These docs are on the other end of the family medicine spectrum from pediatricians!
Gynecologists, of course, handle preventative care for women in reproductive health, menopause, and hormone issues — and you know that an obstetrician specifically looks after pregnant women and delivers their babies. An ob/gyn office (combining the two specialties) is also be a place where cervical cancer is tested and diagnosed, and where breast exams are performed.
Nearly everyone knows that dermatologists have the best information about routine skincare — but they’re also the specialist in charge of treating more serious skin issues, hair loss, or nail irregularities. Rashes or severe acne, rosacea or psoriasis, and skin cancer are treated; these specialists examine symptoms, help you manage them as best as possible, and provide a longterm treatment plan if possible.
These physicians are specially trained to determine if someone has an allergy, and they may also be referred to as an immunologist. If you’re wondering if you have an allergy, an allergist is the doctor to see. In addition to diagnosing and managing allergies, these specialists may also help manage asthma, certain lung conditions, and immunodeficiency disorders. An allergist can give patients with allergies injections to help manage their allergies in the long run.
These physicians are in charge of taking care of your heart, but they’ll most likely step in for direct care if you have high blood pressure, or experience heart failure or irregular heartbeats. Cardiologists often use physical stress tests and electrocardiography to diagnose, treat, and prevent other issues. You’ll also have to be under their care after a heart attack, as your primary doctor may need screening done for future heart conditions.
These physicians look after your eyes, both medically and surgically, which is different from a optometrist, who is responsible for eye tests and corrective lenses as well as prescribing medication for some diseases. Opticians solely help you with the fit of your glasses and contacts overall.Ophthalmologists will also be needed if you develop a serious eye impairment, like glaucoma and cataracts as you age.
For those dealing with diabetes or a thyroid issue, an endocrinologist will help you pinpoint the source of trouble or help you troubleshoot longterm solutions. These specialists assess and treat internal glands that produce hormones and other bodily functions.
Digestive issues? If they’re not clearing up — whether it’s diarrhea, bloating, acid reflux, or excessive flatulence — it’s time to ask for a gastroenterologist’s help. Gastroenterologists — who are licensed physicians, unlike gastrologists — treat anything related to your digestive system (including bad breath!), and for longterm treatment, they help you control issues like irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease. They may also screen you for issues later in life, like a colon cancer screening such as a colonoscopy.
Out of all doctors on this list, this may be one of the few that often require a referral; these doctors specifically look at whether a health issue has been inherited at birth, or if your genes are causing (or will cause) an issue in the future. They’ll often help patients understand how genetic conditions could be passed along to a child preemptively, or they’ll help to treat hereditary conditions that turn up.
If you’re suffering an iron deficiency, or more serious conditions like anemia or hemophilia (inability to clot), a hematologist will step in to assess issues in your blood. They can be instrumental in preventing and treating cancers of the blood, such as leukemia.
Ah, the good brain doctor. But did you know that neurologists are also in charge of managing symptoms related to the nervous system, or anything that relates to your spine? Most often, neurologists tend to patients who have survived a stroke, or battle serious conditions like Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis (MS), and numbness or nerve pain caused by neuropathy. You may also seek them out for migraines and severe headaches that aren’t going away.
These specialized surgeons also take care of your head and neck, but they focus on sinus, hearing, and throat disorders, among other issues. They are more commonly referred to as ENTs because they take care of your “ear, nose, and throat” primarily. You may visit an ENT for sinus issues, allergies and their side effects, as well as swallowing and hearing issues.
Ouch! You’ll be heading to a podiatrist if you have foot, ankle, or lower leg pain or issues that can’t be addressed by your primary care provider. While a visit to the podiatrist is often because someone has physically injured muscles, joints, or bones in their feet, these foot docs can also manage side effects from chronic conditions like diabetes.
Often mentioned in the same breath as a immunologist, these specialists are in charge of mitigating any pain or health concerns in your lungs and the entire respiratory system. You’ll be referred to them for asthma often, but pulmonologists also diagnose and treat conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and lung cancer.
Believe it or not, this doctor is just focused on a singular organ in your body: The kidney. They are often called in for longterm treatment for serious chronic kidney diseases, of which there are many: They may also set up dialysis for those experiencing kidney failure.
Infectious disease specialists:
These doctors may be known as virologists, or epidemiologists, but more routinely they’re called infectious disease physicians. These targeted specialists treat ailments that are caused by viral bacteria or viruses themselves, including conditions like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.
A referral to an oncologist might be terrifying for some, especially if they have yet to yield a positive result for any kind of cancer, but oncologists are often first examining your body, blood, or tissue samples beforehand. They may treat a benign tumor, which isn’t cancerous by nature, but these specialist are still required. Oncologists are the point people for anyone who is living with cancer, and they’ll draft treatment options, plus additional care when you reach remission.
These doctors are different from what’s known as a naturopath, or a natural doctor. Osteopaths, titled as D.O.s in the field, receive similar training to a traditional M.D. — but a greater emphasis is placed on treating a person for holistic health using elements of alternative medicine. Particularly, they often focus on relieving physical pain and tension in your body, especially in muscles and in joints.
These specialized care providers only see you for a short amount of time, and mainly for one thing only: Tests. Radiologists use imaging of all kinds to make an official diagnosis after another doctor or your primary care provider orders a test. The radiologist will make a detailed report to send back to your primary doctor or the specialist who ordered the test. Their testing services most commonly include:
X-Rays for broken bones or other ailments.Computed tomography (CT) scans of your body.Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) on your head, pelvis, or abdomen.
Another highly targeted care provider, a urologist will treat pain and conditions related to the urinary tract (including bladders and urethra) for both men and women. They may troubleshoot issues like incontinence or help you pass a kidney stone; for men, they also deal with reproductive concerns.
A visit to a plastic surgeon’s office isn’t always for “craniofacial” adjustments. A bulk of a plastic surgeon’s doesn’t have to do with cosmetic procedures: They take care of the physical reconstruction of the body, and can help to repair your skin after a serious injury or burn, for example.
Mental health care providers
A special note on the following healthcare providers: They all address aspects of mental health in one way or another, with differences based on patients’ needs. Each of them have different academic qualifications of various degrees, and they work in vastly different settings as well. “Only one type can prescribe medication and treat other medical conditions,” Dr. Hersh explains.
Psychiatrists: These are the only mental-health doctors who can prescribe medication for medical conditions, and so you may need to combine treatment with a psychiatrist (possibly via referral) in addition to those below.Psychologists: These doctors often approach treatment as psychiatrists do initially, focusing on talk therapy and other common discussion tactics for mental health concerns. They are licensed and have an advanced degree, but they often consult between patients and other doctors for further medical treatment rather than address it alone.Therapists: These professionals are indeed trained to provide treatments and therapeutic rehabilitation for patients, but with different degrees; their qualifications and certifications sometimes come from outside academia.