When people find out I’m a gastroenterologist, the primary response I get is, “A gastro-what?”. Although it’s a typical specialty, not many people outside of the medical field are familiar with it. Here is the basic rundown.

What Is Gastroenterology?

Gastroenterology is a study focusing specifically on the digestive system or the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. A Gastroenterologist is simply a physician who specializes in this area of medicine and has extensive training and experience in managing diseases and conditions involving the GI tract.

Gastroenterologists evaluate patients in the office and perform endoscopic procedures, which involve specialized instruments to view and monitor the GI tract to make a diagnosis. Although gastroenterologists work with a GI surgeon in some cases, they don’t perform the surgery themselves. They will primarily work in hospitals or clinics.

What Is The GI System?

The main functions of the GI system are to move and digest food, absorb nutrients, and remove waste from the body. Gastroenterologists are qualified to treat any part of this system. Even though the mouth is part of the digestive system, most dentists take care of this part of the body.

Other parts of the GI tract include:

  • Stomach
  • Small intestine
  • Large intestine
  • Liver
  • Gallbladder
  • Esophagus
  • Pancreas
  • Rectum
  • Anus

Gastroenterologists also treat many other diseases or focus on one particular type of gastroenterology. The main areas of focus in this field are: 

  • Pancreatic disease
  • Inflammatory bowel disease, or chronic inflammation in the digestive tract
  • Gastrointestinal cancer
  • Hepatology focuses on diseases of the liver, gallbladder, biliary tree, and pancreas
  • Transplantation
  • Reflux esophagitis
  • Endoscopic surveillance

Education And Training

Like most medical field specialties, Gastroenterology requires a great deal of schooling, training, and experience. The first requirement is to get a four-year college degree, followed by another four years at medical school. The next step is a three-year internal medicine residency, a training program where the trainee works with experienced and professional gastroenterologists.

There are two or three years of fellowship following the residency to receive further specialized training. Once this training is complete, the final step is to pass a specialty certification exam for gastroenterologists. If you pass the exam, the American Board of Internal Medicine certifies you as a gastroenterologist.

What Do Gastroenterologists Do?

Gastroenterologists treat conditions that involve the GI tract. It includes:

  • Ulcers
  • IBS
  • Pancreatitis
  • Colon cancer
  • Acid reflux or GERD
  • Hepatitis C
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Bloody stool
  • Polyps
  • Jaundice

Gastroenterologists also perform several nonsurgical procedures. These include:

  • Liver biopsies to assess fibrosis and inflammation
  • Endoscopic ultrasounds to examine the upper and lower GI tract and other internal organs
  • Colonoscopies to detect colon polyps and colon cancer
  • Endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography to identify tumors, gallstones, and scar tissue in the bile duct area
  • Sigmoidoscopies to evaluate blood loss or bowel pain
  • Capsule endoscopies and
  • Double balloon enteroscopy, both to examine the small intestine

When Should You See A Gastroenterologist?

Your doctor will generally refer you to a gastroenterologist if you have symptoms involving the digestive system unexplained or not treatable by your primary care office. It can include difficulty swallowing, abdominal pain, or blood in your stool.

You may also want to meet with a gastroenterologist for regular colon screenings if you are over 50, increasing your risk of colon cancer. It is also true if you have a relative with colon cancer, as genetics put you at increased risk—some people who have an increased risk of colon cancer need colonoscopy before age 50. Making sure your digestive system is working will help you avoid many other health issues and help you live the healthiest life possible. 

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