What is a Gastroenterologist

Gastroenterologists treat different types of digestive disease

Colon, Illustration
Colon, Illustration. Getty Images/BSIP/UIG

The definition of a gastroenterologist is a physician with specialized and formal training in treating diseases of the digestive system.

Training to Become a Gastroenterologist

It takes a lot of training to become a gastroenterologist. First, a person must have a medical degree (M.D. or D.O.). After medical school (which is four years of training), the physician must complete a three-year residency program in internal medicine and then a gastroenterology fellowship, which is an additional 2 to 3 years.

In total, a gastroenterologist will have about 5 to 6 years of training after medical school. They are truly considered the experts for diagnosing and treating diseases of the digestive system.

Physicians who have completed an internal medicine residency and gastroenterology fellowship are able to take a special exam that further demonstrates specialized knowledge. Those who complete and pass this exam are recognized as board certified gastroenterologists.

Gastroenterologist Specialization

A gastroenterologist may further specialize, and take an interest in studying and treating only certain diseases or conditions.

For instance, some physicians may specialize in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and see primarily patients who have IBD. This can offer patients an even higher level of care, because their gastroenterologist will have a very high level of knowledge related to their particular disease.

Gastroenterologists also receive special training in endoscopy, which allows the physician to use a thin, flexible tube with a built-in video camera to see the inside of the intestinal tract. Physicians studying to be a gastroenterologist also learn how to perform advanced endoscopic procedures such as polypectomy (removal of colon polyps), esophageal and intestinal dilation (stretching of narrowed areas), and hemostasis (injection or cautery to stop bleeding).

What a Gastroenterologist Treats

A gastroenterologist that is certified by the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery must have proficiency in diagnosing and treating the following conditions:

  • Anorectal conditions
    • Hemorrhoids
    • Colonic neoplasms
    • Cancer
    • Polyps
  • Diverticulosis
  • Esophageal reflux
  • Gastritis
  • Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
  • Hepatitis
  • Hiatal Hernia
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
    • Ulcerative colitis
    • Crohn's disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Ulcers

A gastroenterologist must also be proficient in treating and managing the following signs and symptoms:

Signs and Symptoms

  • Abdominal pain
  • Abnormal x-ray findings
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Heartburn
  • Indigestion
  • Jaundice
  • Liver Disease
  • Malabsorption
  • Nausea
  • Post-operative colon tests
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Vomiting

And in performing the following tests:

  • Colon screening exams
  • Esophageal and intestinal dilation
  • Hemostasis
  • Polypectomy

Since the liver is part of the digestive system, gastroenterologists are well trained in treating many forms of liver disease, including hepatitis.

However, physicians who have additional training and experience with liver disease are called hepatologists.

How To Locate A Gastroenterologist

When a person is experiencing symptoms in the digestive tract, it may be time to consult a gastroenterologist. A primary care physician or an internist can help with a referral to a gastroenterologist, but they can also be found through the following sources:

Reference:

American College of Gastroenterology. "What is a Gastroenterologist?" American College of Gastroenterology 2006. 20 Jan 2014.

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