Do I Need a Gastroenterologist?

In Some Cases, a Referral To a Digestive Specialist May Be Helpful

Medical Checkup
A gastroenterologist has special training to diagnose and treat diseases of the diseases of the digestive system. Image © morofoto / Getty Images

When you first notice new signs or symptoms in your digestive system, such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn or abdominal pain, you might wonder if you should see your regular doctor, an internist, or a digestive specialist (a gastroenterologist). Which doctor you decide to see at the start of your symptoms, as well as after you get a diagnosis, is going to vary based on a number of different factors.

In some cases, it might be clear when to see a gastroenterologist, but in others, there might be some wiggle room.

When Your Digestive Symptoms Are New

If you are having digestive symptoms for the first time, your first step may be to get an appointment with a doctor you already know, such as your family physician, primary care physician, or internist. Ideally, this is a physician with whom you already have a relationship and who is familiar with your medical history. Once you've described your new symptoms, your doctor can then do a physical exam and determine what tests (if any) should be done first in order to find out what may be causing the symptoms.

At this point, there will be some decisions to make based on the results of your physical exam, lab tests, or imaging studies. If your doctor decides that your symptoms need the attention of a specialist, you may be sent to a gastroenterologist.

Your primary care physician will be able to refer you to one. However, if the diagnosis is a common one, is easily treatable and/or is not likely to recur, you and your regular doctor may decide to continue working together without a gastroenterologist.

When You Have Already Been Diagnosed With a Digestive Condition

In many cases, people who are diagnosed with a chronic (ongoing) digestive condition are under the long-term care of a gastroenterologist.

If you are experiencing a recurrence or a flare-up of an existing condition, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome, you should contact the gastroenterologist who has been managing your treatment. Your gastroenterologist should be in talking with your other physicians, and will give regular updates on your progress.

Gastroenterologists also treat diseases of the liver and the pancreas. If a disease such as hepatitis or pancreatitis is suspected, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist for treatment.

Routine Referrals for Screenings

A primary care physician may also refer a patient to a gastroenterologist for routine tests, such as a colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer in people who are older than 50 years (or younger, when appropriate).

What About Insurance Coverage for Specialists?

In the United States, many insurance carriers require a referral to a specialist. If you do not get a proper referral, your insurance company may not cover the costs associated with a visit to a specialist. In this case, you must first see your primary care physician (for women, this may include a gynecologist) and be referred to a gastroenterologist. Other insurance carriers do not require a referral, and you may make an appointment with a specialist on your own.

Check with your insurance carrier (the phone number will be on the back of your insurance card) if you are unsure or don't know if you need a referral, as well as to find out if the doctor you want to see is on your plan.

In Canada, you must first see your general practitioner or another specialist and be referred to a gastroenterologist. If you try to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist without a referral, you may be unable to do so.

What If the Closest Gastroenterologist Is Hours Away?

In some areas, there may not be a gastroenterologist close by. Seeing one on a regular basis may require a certain amount of travel.

This can be a hardship, but it should be taken into consideration that a gastroenterologist has a significant amount of specialized training in digestive diseases and conditions. When the diagnosis is a chronic digestive disease that requires careful management, a gastroenterologist will have the experience needed to recommend a comprehensive treatment plan.

What Conditions Could Be Managed by a Gastroenterologist?

A gastroenterologist is specially trained to manage diseases of the digestive tract from the esophagus to the anus. Some conditions that a gastroenterologist may treat include:

Working With Your Gastroenterologist

Gastroenterologists have the specialized training needed to treat diseases like IBD. It might seem scary to have symptoms that need to be treated by a specialist. But in most cases, seeing a specialist is going to be the best choice to get the most up-to-date care for digestive conditions. In the case of a gastroenterologist being far away, having a close relationship with a local doctor, such as a primary care physician, will be very important. The primary care doctor may be able to consult with a gastroenterologist and spare the patient some travel.

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