For many women, especially those in their reproductive years, an ob-gyn is the one person who seems to have all the answers. They’re trusted medical professionals who feel familiar and reliable, and they’re often some of the first people women turn to with any medical concerns. However, this level of comfort may lead some women patients to use their ob-gyns as their only source of primary care. In fact, in one study, 48 percent of women either identified their ob-gyn as their primary care physician (PCP) or didn’t have a PCP at all.
These numbers are concerning because, while ob-gyns are incredible resources for reproductive health and various screenings, the reality is they often don’t have the time or training to take on the additional roles of a primary care physician. As a result, forgetting to schedule a visit with a PCP may cause certain health problems to fall through the cracks completely unaddressed.
To get a better understanding of an ob-gyn’s role — and their limitations — POPSUGAR went directly to the source. Here’s what ob-gyns want you to know before you decide to schedule an appointment with one specialty and not the other.
Why Do I Need Both an Ob-Gyn and a Primary Care Doctor?
The short answer: each of these doctors serves a unique purpose. According to Wendy Askew, MD, a board-certified ob-gyn with more than 20 years of experience, ob-gyns are specifically trained to handle conditions involving reproductive health, breast health, and pelvic health. When you need to discuss contraception or be screened for sexually transmitted diseases, there’s no one better to have in your corner. But it’s important to remember that ob-gyns do not conduct full physical exams.
While this level of care may seem fine for young women who are generally healthy, it can become a problem, especially as they grow older. It’s at that point that an ob-gyn may start to miss signs and symptoms that could point to more serious conditions, like heart disease or diabetes. For one thing, they’re under a time constraint. “If ob-gyns do screening last and find a borderline glucose reading or a slightly high cholesterol reading, it’s probably not going to be followed up on, and it’s very likely not going to be treated,” Dr. Askew told POPSUGAR.
Primary care physicians are there to catch problems like these, and helping patients manage chronic disease is hardly the full scope of their practice. They can also help ensure you’re eating right and exercising, for example, and that you’re in a good place, mentally and emotionally. In fact, one analysis found that PCPs were nearly two-and-a-half times more likely than ob-gyns to identify other issues, such as mental health disorders, metabolic conditions, or skin diseases, while performing a preventive gynecologic exam.
There are also some symptoms and conditions that may be best addressed by both doctors. “Many gynecologic problems are actually manifestations of other medical issues that are happening in the woman,” Felice Gersh, MD, an ob-gyn and author of PCOS SOS Fertility Fast Track, told POPSUGAR. For example, if you’re experiencing irregularities in your cycle, your ob-gyn may prescribe birth control, but a PCP could find that there’s an underlying problem — such as a poor diet or chronic stress — that also needs to be addressed. Without that line of communication between the two fields, these issues are less likely to be solved.
The bottom line is that neither an ob-gyn nor a primary care physician has the time or expertise to do the job of the other. To get the best care, you need both. “It’s super important because we’re all living to our 80s, and part of living healthfully is preventative care,” Dr. Askew said. “We want to help people be as vibrant and functional as they can.”