When to See a Pulmonary Specialist

When to See a Pulmonary Specialist

when to see a pulmonary specialistIf you have COPD, you may be wondering when to see a pulmonary specialist. Because a pulmonary specialist, or pulmonologist, specializes in diseases of the lungs and bronchial tubes, adding one to your repertoire of health care providers is something you may want to consider. But should you consult with a pulmonary specialist at the onset of your symptoms? Or should you wait to see a pulmonary specialist after you’re diagnosed?

What is a Pulmonologist?

A pulmonologist is a medical doctor that has specialized knowledge and skill in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions and diseases of the lungs. Pulmonology is considered a subspecialty of internal medicine. In order for a physician to become a pulmonologist, they must have graduated from an approved medical school. They must have completed an internal medicine residency program which takes a minimum of 3 years in which they will have treated patients with a wide range of illnesses and medical conditions. They must then take and pass a certification examination administered by the Board of Internal Medicine. But this is not all. In the final stages of their training, they must complete a 2-year minimum pulmonary fellowship, during which time they will learn the symptoms and treatment of minor and major respiratory conditions from asthma, pneumonia and tuberculosis to COPD, interstitial lung disease and cystic fibrosis. At the end of the fellowship, the pulmonologist must pass a second set of board certification examinations in their specialty.

The Role of the Primary Care Provider in COPD

Although there are many different specialists that can make up a COPD treatment team, as long as your COPD is uncomplicated, most of your treatment can come from your primary care provider. Primary care providers play a critical role in the screening, diagnosis and treatment of COPD. They are usually the ones who end up catching COPD early, even before symptoms begin, by screening smokers using a simple breathing test known as spirometry.

Your primary care provider can also prescribe all of your COPD medications for you, including inhalers, steroids, oxygen and antibiotics. So if your primary care provider can treat your COPD effectively, when should you see a pulmonary specialist?

The Role of the Pulmonologist in COPD

Seeing a pulmonologist may be necessary if you have a more complicated case of COPD. For example, your primary care provider may refer you to a pulmonologist if you’re not responding well to COPD treatment, you’re hospitalized for COPD exacerbation or your disease has reached a more advanced stage of COPD.

A pulmonologist may order a different combination of medications or special treatments for you. To better-assess your condition or implement diagnostic studies, they can also perform a bronchoscopy using a flexible scope to look down your airway and inside your lungs. A pulmonologist may also have a staff that is very much geared for the lung patient that a primary care provider may not have or be able to afford in their office. A pulmonologist may also be used to reinforce what the primary care provider has already initiated, especially the importance of smoking cessation in a patient who continues to smoke.

What if I Can’t Get a Referral to a Pulmonologist?

You don’t have to wait for your primary care provider to refer you to a pulmonary specialist. If you feel you need one, you can self-refer, if you have PPO insurance, or you can request a referral from your primary care provider. If your primary care provider doesn’t want to give you a referral, speak to your health insurance company as it is within your rights to see a specialist if you have reason to believe you need one.


By Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN


14 thoughts on “When to See a Pulmonary Specialist”

  1. William Croft says:

    Can my primary care doctor write the prescription for a oxygen concentrator or do I have to have lung specialist do that?

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi William, If your primary care doctor determines that you need oxygen, he or she will be able to prescribe you oxygen therapy. If you have any additional questions about portable oxygen concentrators, please call an Inogen Oxygen Specialist at 1-800-678-5572.

  2. William (Bill) Barnes says:

    I have COPD and have been on oxygen for nearly 2 years. I have recently started coughing and my back hurts along my lungs. I have not called my primary dr. yet, because I can refer myself and would like to see a specialist. What would you suggest? I am on an inhaler, ANORA,

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Bill, We encourage you to see a pulmonologist so that they can diagnosis your symptoms.

  3. Sammy says:

    I was diagnosis with mild COPD. I have had a cough for 2 years this Nov. I was diagnosis with acute reflux two years ago. On the chest x-ray they also found a Hiatal Hernia. Do the two work hand in hand. Do I need to see a Pulmonologist?

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Sammy, Since we are not your primary care doctor we cannot give you medical advice. We recommend that you consult with your primary care doctor so that he or she can refer you to a pulmonologist if needed.

  4. rae says:

    I have been to my primary and have had pneumonia 2 times this year and cannot get rid of a cough. I have a needling pressure on the left side that doesn't go away – like a ache. Not asking for medical advise, just whether a pulmonologist is the right direction to go.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Rae, If you have had a cough for more than three weeks, it is defined as a chronic cough. If you are experiencing a chronic cough, you should see a pulmonologist. However, please first consult with your primary care doctor. He or she can diagnosis your symptoms and refer you to a pulmonolgoist if needed.

  5. Ron says:

    I have been diagnos with copd may 15 2016 and diagnos with chf my heart doctor told me that my sleep apnea doctor can take care of it is that true

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Ron, It couldn't hurt to talk to the doctor. I suggest you call their office and speak to them and determine if that might be helpful. Good luck and best wishes.

  6. Hope Abey says:

    (My english is not so good)

    A friend of mine, he has cough problem. He is suffering from cough problem for 20 years now. There is no pain in lungs or in any body part, no blood during cough nothing just cough.. (except mucus) .He had visited alots of hospital n Doctors n almost all doc. said its just a allergy . But the prescribed medicine doesnt work much. He still has the problem.
    Few weeks back he visited a doc n he suggested him some medicinal herbs. It seems its working a bit but not all.

    please will you suggest some measures to be taken for him to recover like foods and medicine for allergy..

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Hope, We have a few blog posts about allergies/respiratory symptoms. For foods that may worsen respiratory symptoms, please visit: https://www.inogen.com/blog/foods-may-worsen-respiratory-symptoms/
      For 10 tips on how to relieve winter allergies, please visit: https://www.inogen.com/blog/10-tips-taming-winter-allergies/
      For 8 ways on how to rid your home of allergies, please visit: https://www.inogen.com/blog/8-ways-to-rid-your-home-of-allergens/
      We hope this helps you and your friend! Happy holidays.

  7. altha says:

    I was diagnosis with COPD will be three years this April 2018, just recently started coughing. I have a problem with loseing weight but eat like a country dog can someone help me tell me something please.

    1. Inogen Inogen says:

      Hi Altha, Many COPD patients experience weight lose and find it harder to maintain their weight. For more information on COPD, specifically on COPD diets and exercise, please visit: https://www.inogen.com/resources/living-with-copd/copd-fact-sheet/

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