When it comes to your routine health care needs, it’s easy to think you’ve got it covered with your yearly visit to the OB-GYN.
Health assessment? Check.
Pelvic exam? Check.
Pap test? Check.
Flu shot and other immunizations? Check.
But what should you do when you get sick or want to improve your overall health? Can your OB-GYN help, or should you see a doctor who practices primary care?
We’ll answer these questions and others as we dig into the kinds of care OB-GYNs and other types of primary care doctors can provide, and where their specialties lie.
Is there a difference between a primary care doctor and an OB-GYN?
Both OB-GYNs and primary care doctors can provide many of the same services like prescribing birth control, treating vaginal or urinary tract infections, and performing certain health screenings. They can also provide referrals for mammograms and coordinate care with other specialists depending on your health needs.
But the main differences lie in their areas of expertise and focus.
OB-GYNs are gynecologists and obstetricians who specialize in women’s health
OB-GYNs don’t treat illnesses or conditions that are unrelated to women’s health. So, you wouldn’t see your OB-GYN for things like sinus infections or digestive problems.
When a doctor is an OB-GYN, it means that they’re trained in two specialties: obstetrics and gynecology. Obstetrics involves all aspects of pregnancy care, from preconception to immediately after childbirth. Gynecology involves care for all women’s health issues.
So, an OB-GYN is considered a primary care doctor, but only when it comes to women’s health. These doctors focus on pregnancy care, reproductive health, breast health, sexual health and women’s preventive care. They also have advanced training to help women through health concerns such as heavy periods, infertility and menopause.
Primary care doctors treat the whole person
Traditional primary care doctors specialize in diagnosing and treating a range of conditions that impact overall health. These doctors provide preventive care, treat acute conditions like the seasonal flu or skin conditions, and help manage chronic conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure.
There are several different types of primary care doctors who can care for adults. Two of the most common are family medicine doctors and internal medicine doctors, and who you would choose for care depends on your needs and preferences.
- Family medicine doctors are trained to treat every family member. That means they know how to diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions for patients of all ages, from itty-bitty babies to seniors celebrating their hundredth birthday. Some family doctors also provide prenatal care and can deliver babies like OB-GYNs. So if you’re looking for a one-stop shop for your whole family’s needs, a family medicine doctor is a great choice for primary care.
- Internal medicine doctors provide care at every stage of adulthood. Their training covers general medical conditions and goes deep into hospital medicine, as well as adult medicine subspecialties like neurology, endocrinology and rheumatology. So, if you like the idea of working with someone who specializes in adult health care or you have multiple chronic conditions, an internal medicine doctor can be a great primary care option.
Do women need a primary care doctor and an OB-GYN?
Many healthy women often choose to see only a primary care doctor or an OB-GYN for their care. So, if you’re in good overall health, you can see whomever you prefer for your annual checkups.
That said, if you have an OB-GYN you trust, it’s a good idea to have a traditional primary care doctor you trust, too. There are many benefits to having a primary care doctor, and while you may choose not to see them for annual preventive care, a primary care doctor can be there when you’re sick with a nasty flu or questions about your overall health pop up.
What about midwives? Are they able to provide primary care?
Midwives – like OB-GYNs – specialize in women’s health. So, rather than choosing a midwife over a primary care doctor, you may choose a midwife instead of an OB-GYN for your women’s health needs.
Can you see your family doctor for pregnancy care? Or do you need to see a specialist?
It depends on your preferences and your overall health. OB-GYNs, family practice doctors and certified nurse-midwives can all provide expert care throughout your pregnancy, the birthing process and in the weeks after delivery.
Many women choose an OB-GYN or a midwife for pregnancy care because they like having a specialist who is focused on women’s health. Their passion for supporting women from pregnancy through birth is usually a huge reason why they do what they do.
OB-GYNs are also specially trained to handle all types of pregnancies, including complex pregnancies and delivery challenges. So if you’re considered high risk based on your age or other health conditions, or you’re expecting multiple babies, an OB-GYN can provide you with exceptional care.
If your pregnancy is deemed low risk, you may choose to see a family doctor or midwife for your pregnancy care. And if you’d like the convenience of having a doctor to care for you and your baby into the future, a family doctor can be a fantastic choice since they’re able to care for people of all ages.
Not all family doctors provide pregnancy care, though. So make sure to confirm before making an appointment.
When you may want to see an OB-GYN for care
Your OB-GYN can be your first stop for everything related to women’s reproductive health. Women often choose to see a doctor in obstetrics and gynecology for:
- Preventive care for reproductive health, including Pap tests, mammograms, menopause and annual women’s health physicals
- Pregnancy care, particularly for high-risk or complex pregnancies
- Postpartum care
- Chronic bladder or urinary tract infections, which means you’ve had two or more in the past six months, or three within the past year
- If your infection is acute, primary care can be your first stop if you’d prefer
- Painful or heavy periods
- Sexual health concerns such as screenings for sexually transmitted infections, sex education and therapy
- Family planning and preconception counseling
- Endometrial or ovarian cancer
- Menopause symptoms
While OB-GYNs don’t focus on managing health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or thyroid issues, they can help you understand how these factors affect your reproductive health.
When you may want to see a primary care doctor
If you’re in need of everyday care to cure acute illnesses, treat minor injuries or keep an eye on your health, your primary care doctor is the way to go. This starts with an annual checkup to make sure that your overall health is good and that health conditions don’t sneak up on you.
Your yearly visit with your primary care provider is different than a women’s well visit because you’ll discuss your lifestyle and other topics affecting your overall health such as diet, exercise and smoking.
Visit your primary care doctor for:
- Annual physicals, cancer screenings, cholesterol screenings, blood pressure screenings and immunizations like a tetanus booster or annual flu shots
- Acute illnesses, including the common cold, seasonal flu or ear infections
- Health concerns such as skin rashes, bug bites or bowel-related issues
- Management of chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or thyroid disease
- Mental health concerns
- Sleep issues
- Nutrition and weight management
- Preventive care and acute care for women’s health issues if you’re in overall good health, or you prefer seeing a primary care doctor before going to a specialist
- Pregnancy care if your pregnancy is deemed low risk and you’d prefer a family doctor who can provide primary, prenatal and postpartum care
While your primary care doctor can provide you with a range of care, depending on your health needs or concerns, they can also connect you to specialists if needed.
Find an OB-GYN or primary care doctor
Your health is important, and you deserve the right team to support all your health care needs.
If reproductive health is a priority or you just feel more comfortable talking to someone who specializes in women’s health, take time to find an OB-GYN you can trust.
The right primary care doctor can support your overall health care as you age. Depending on your health care needs and family history, there are reasons why you may wish to consider a family medicine or internal medicine doctor as your primary care doctor.
But the most important thing is that you find doctors that you like and feel comfortable talking to about personal and sensitive health information.