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7 questions to ask before you see a specialist 

7 questions to ask before you see a specialist 

If your primary care provider refers you to a specialist, it’s important to know why and what to expect. These questions can help guide the conversation. 

When you have a health concern, you usually visit your primary care provider (PCP) first. That will be a doctor, physician assistant, nurse practitioner or clinical nurse specialist.1  

Often, your PCP will treat you directly. But for a more complex health issue, sometimes you need to see a specialist. That’s a doctor with advanced education and training in a specific area of medicine. 

If you need to see a specialist, your PCP will recommend one. There are dozens of types. Common ones include:2  

  • Gastroenterologist (expert in digestive disorders) 
  • Neurologist (expert in brain and nervous-system problems) 
  • Cardiologist (expert in heart and blood vessel diseases) 
  • Endocrinologist (expert in hormone diseases such as diabetes) 
  • Rheumatologist (expert in joint diseases) 
  • Urologist (expert in urinary tract problems) 
  • Dermatologist (expert in skin problems) 
  • Orthopedist (expert in bone and muscle problems) 

Of course, you need to find the right specialist. And it helps to understand what you’re visiting them for.  

If your PCP makes a referral, they will let you know why you should see a specialist. But it’s also a good idea to ask questions, says Steffanie Campbell, MD. She’s the chief of the internal medicine department at Optum in Pearland, Texas. And she often refers her patients to specialists. 

When you get a recommendation, here are seven questions to ask your doctor.  

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Question #1: Why do you think I need to see a specialist? 

This is an easy way to understand what your PCP is thinking. You could get some important insights into what might be going on with your health.  

But sometimes, the answer may be vague. That’s all right too. Often, when Dr. Campbell’s patients ask why she’s recommending a specialist, she tells them that their condition is simply outside the scope of her practice or that she wants a second opinion.  

She’ll say something like, “I feel we need some extra help so we can make sure we’re doing all we can to maintain your heath.” 

Question #2: Why did you pick this particular specialist? 

Your PCP will usually recommend someone they trust or know by reputation.  

If you have an Optum doctor, rest assured that they will refer you to a top-notch specialist. Optum’s PCPs have access to data about the specialist’s performance. That means they will recommend someone in the Optum network with a proven record of high-quality health care.   

Question #3: What if I want to choose my own specialist? 

Ultimately, you can see who you want to see. But your PCP has a lot of experience, so it’s a good idea to keep them in the loop.  

“If a patient asks for someone specific, I do try to look them up to make sure I feel comfortable with them,” Dr. Campbell says. Sometimes, the specialist is fine. If not, she tries to gently guide the patient toward a doctor she trusts.  

Question #4: Will you tell the specialist what’s going on with my health? 

Your PCP should be in communication with your specialist, says Dr. Campbell. “I usually send a very detailed question, or I’ll even send the patient’s chart,” she says. “If I have a working relationship with them, which is probably true since I’m referring, then I feel like I have the opportunity to pick up the phone and talk to them.” 

When that’s not possible, she tells the patient what questions to ask. And she makes sure the patient knows what’s going on with their health.  

“I try to make sure [the patient] goes in as knowledgeable as they can,” she says. That’s better for everyone, including the specialist. “I can’t imagine being a specialist and that patient shows up and you’re like, ‘Why are you here?’” says Dr. Campbell. That kind of confusion may keep you from getting the best care. 

Question #5: Will the specialist take over my care for the condition? 

The fact that you’re going to a specialist doesn’t mean you’re not still working with your PCP. Often, you’ll just need a single visit. Then you’ll be back with your PCP, who will continue to serve as your care coordinator.3  

When it’s possible, that is what Dr. Campbell prefers. “I like working with specialists who allow me to continue to be the spearhead,” she says. She collects notes from the specialist and then oversees the care plan. “I tend to be a mama bear,” she says. “They’re my family. I want to be in charge.” 

You can also ask the specialist for an after-visit summary. That way, you’ll have a record of what the specialist discussed — and next steps.  

Question #6: How will you and the specialist coordinate my care?

This can give you insight into how well your PCP knows the specialist.  

After you visit a specialist, they should give your PCP the results of your visit. If both doctors are part of the same health system, everything goes into the same electronic health record.4 That’s usually the case with Dr. Campbell’s patients. 

But the communication can also be more direct. It can be via a secure chat or even a direct call. “Most of the specialists I work with, we actually have each other’s cell phone numbers,” says Dr. Campbell. 

As your care continues, your PCP and specialist should stay in touch. For example, in the Optum network, you don’t have to worry about care coordination. In fact, the best care coordination is the goal of the entire care team if you’re one of Optum’s patients on Medicare Advantage. Rest assured, your doctor leads your personalized team and oversees your care, even when you see a specialist.  

“If I ever make changes to something that has been followed or managed by specialists, I always let them know. That way, we are both on the same page,” says Dr. Campbell. 

At Optum Care, our wide network of specialists put your care front and center. Find an Optum doctor.

Question #7: Do I need a faster appointment? 

Some specialists have waiting lists, but if you have a health situation that can't wait, your PCP should tell you. “As your provider, if I felt that this was a very time-sensitive situation, then yes, I would call and have a specific conversation with the specialist,” Dr. Campbell says. 

If needed, your PCP might end up referring you to another specialist who can see you sooner.  Or it may be fine for you to wait several weeks to see a specialist. Your PCP will let you know. 

While your Optum PCP will be the one keeping an eye on the big picture, it’s a good idea to take an active role in your health. That’s why it’s important to ask these questions. And if you’re an Optum patient, your care team will help you find the right answers to get the high-quality care you need, no matter how many Optum providers you end up seeing. 


  1. Healthcare.gov. Primary care provider. Accessed November 27, 2023. 
  2. Optum.com. Specialty care. Accessed November 27, 2023. 
  3. Healthcare.gov. Primary care. Accessed November 27, 2023. 
  4. CMS.gov. Electronic health records. Last updated September 6, 2023. Accessed November 27, 2023. 

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