When people find out I’m a gastroenterologist, the main response I get is, “A gastro-what?”. Although it’s a common specialty, not many people outside of the medical field are familiar with what it entails. 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 the management of 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 in order to make a diagnosis. Although in some cases gastoenterolgists work with a GI surgeon, they don’t perform 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. Although the mouth is included in the digestive system, services for this part of the body are mainly left to dentists.

Other parts of the GI tract include:

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

Gastroenteologists also treat many other diseases, or choose to 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, which focuses on diseases of the liver, gallbladder, biliary tree, and pancreas
  • Transplantation
  • Reflux esophagitis
  • Endoscopic surveillance

Education And Training

Gastroenterology, like most medical field specialties, require 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, which is essentially a training program where the trainee works with experienced and professional gastroenterologists.

Following the residency, there is another two or three years of fellowship 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 a gastroenterologist.

What Do Gastroenterologists Do?

Gastroenterologists treat conditions which involve the GI tract. This 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 enteroscopies, 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 that are unexplained or not treatable by your primary care office. This 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 the age of 50, as this increases your risk for colon cancer. This is also true if you have a relative with colon cancer, as genetics put you at increased risk. Some people who have increased risk of colon cancer need colonoscopy prior to age 50. At the end of the day, making sure your digestive system is working properly will help avoid many other health issues as well and will help you live the healthiest life possible.