Should Your Gynecologist be Your Primary Care Physician?

Your obstetrician-gynecologist has been there for you through thick and thin: from your first contraception to your last baby; maybe even through menopause. But is she always the best choice as a primary care physician? Your gynecologist as your go-to-doctor-for-everything might not necessarily be a good idea.

A primary care physician (PCP) is your first line of defense when navigating the health care system. It's the doctor you see for most medical situations from sprains to the flu to routine physical exams. Primary care physicians can be doctors, nurse practitioners, or physician's assistants. They can be family practice doctors, internal medicine specialists, pediatricians, gynecologists, or experts in some other specialty. A gynecologist is a doctor who specializes in women's health and is often the only doctor a healthy woman needs. That is, until she has a medical condition that requires special care.

PCPs who see a wide range of patients (men, women, children, teenagers, adults, and seniors), including family practice physicians and internists, are likely to have frequent experience treating a wide variety of physical conditions and health problems. They consult and refer to a varied network of medical specialists when a patient has a condition that requires expertise. They also have their finger on the pulse of what's happening in the general health community. For example, if a patient calls and says she has a fever, body aches and a cough, a family practice provider may recognize this as "the virus that's going around." Or, she may say, "I've had a few patients lately with these symptoms and they've needed antibiotics."

While gynecologists can and do provide excellent general health care to women and have been trained in overall health, their focus is women's health and wellness, pregnancy, and diseases in reproductive organs, breasts, and the hormone system. They may not have the same bank of daily head-to-toe medical experience or network of specialists as another type of primary care physician. This could be dangerous if a patient has something the gynecologist doesn't commonly see. For example, if a patient sees her gynecologist for a nagging cough, the gynecologist may not think about the patient's allergy symptoms. Whereas a PCP who sees patients for all kinds of illnesses may recognize the patient needs to be evaluated for asthma.

Women who have no significant or ongoing health problems can safely get their healthcare needs met by their gynecologist. But if a medical condition crops up that's not specifically associated with women's health, it may be time to see a PCP. Ask your gynecologist, family, friends, and insurance network for a recommendation.