What Is Tertiary Care?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2019
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Tertiary care refers to medical attention from specialists who focus in particular diseases or anatomical systems. People typically access this level of treatment through a referral from another care provider. For example, when a general practitioner identifies cancer in a patient, he or she can be referred to an oncologist, a cancer specialist, for tertiary care. Large hospitals and medical facilities may have departments for this purpose, and it is also possible to visit specialty clinics.

Care providers in such facilities can include doctors who have attended fellowships to develop skills in fields like advanced reconstructive surgery, liver care, or neurology. Nurses and technicians with special training are also available to provide patient care. At the facility, people may be able to receive detailed medical imaging studies and other diagnostic procedures along with treatment. The extensive training of personnel allows for advanced medical investigation using the latest technology and information.

Patient outcomes can be better when people receive prompt tertiary care, rather than being seen by general practitioners for complex medical conditions. In a referral, a doctor can discuss why the patient needs to see a specialist, and can provide information to share with the consultant to facilitate treatment. Hospitalized patients may receive tertiary care through consults called in by the person coordinating care. For example, if a patient in an intensive care unit has trouble breathing, a nurse might request assistance from a respiratory therapist to make sure the patient gets the best possible treatment.


Access to this level of care tends to be better in urban locations. These regions have a larger patient base to draw upon and can support specialist facilities. Patients in rural locales may need to travel to see a specialist. Some facilities offer housing and other assistance to people who might need to stay overnight or for several days because the commute from home is too long to travel back and forth while meeting with care providers. Others can refer patients to options for hotels in the area, some of which may offer special rates to medical patients.

Services at tertiary care facilities can be more expensive. Some patients experience problems with insurance coverage unless their care providers can offer specific, detailed documentation to explain why they need to see specialists. People concerned about expense may want to consider a pre-authorization request. In such requests, patients ask their providers to confirm in advance that they will cover a consultation and related diagnostic and therapeutic procedures.


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