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In medicine, secondary care refers to services provided by health care specialists to patients following a referral from a primary care provider. Secondary care providers usually have a narrow scope of practice in treating specific conditions or providing specific types of care and advice. While some providers of secondary care may accept patients directly, others may work only with patients referred by primary health care workers and doctors.
When people seek health care services, they typically work with a primary care provider. This is a health care professional who is trained in addressing the general health needs of a patient. While many primary care providers are physicians, including internists and family practice doctors, other providers of primary care include nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Primary health care includes regular physical examinations and testing, as well as treating common injuries and ailments. When a more serious health issue arises in a patient, his primary care practitioner will often refer him to a provider of secondary care.
These providers include physicians who specialize in specific body systems. For example, a primary care doctor may refer a patient with suspected heart trouble to a cardiologist, while a patient with a skin condition may be sent to a dermatologist. In some cases, a provider of secondary care may not be a physician, but practices another health care modality, such as nutrition or physical therapy.
In cases where the care provider believes that a patient requires even more specialized care, she may make a referral to a tertiary care practitioner, who has an even more specialized area of practice. If the patient's condition is extremely serious or his condition is very unusual, quaternary care may be provided in the form of experimental treatments and advanced diagnostic techniques.
The ability of patients to directly access the services of a secondary care provider depend on the health care system to which they have access. For example, in government-sponsored health care systems, such as in the United Kingdom, patients typically work with a primary care physician, also known as a general practitioner or a GP, who makes all referrals to providers of specialized care. In the United States, access to secondary care providers depends largely on a patient's insurance plan as well as a provider's own business policy. While some insurance plans require patients to obtain referrals through their primary care provider, others allow patients to refer themselves directly to specialist care.