Gastroenterology is the subspecialty of internal medicine concerned with disorders and conditions of the gastrointestinal (“GI”) tract, also called the digestive tract. More specifically, gastroenterologists are concerned with the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines (colon), pancreas and liver.
Gastroenterologists must first complete seven or more years of medical school and postgraduate training and become board certified in Internal Medicine. Then, for an additional two to three years, they study conditions specific to the GI tract.
Gastroenterologists are experts in adults
As internists, gastroenterologists focus on adults. Their role is to prevent, diagnose and treat conditions and disorders of the GI tract in adult patients. But as broadly trained internists, they may also perform a general physical check-up. If a condition is found that falls within gastroenterology, they will provide the treatment. If it requires the services of another physician, they will refer you appropriately. Gastroenterologists may perform routine laboratory studies for patients undergoing a complete office examination.
When you need a gastroenterologist
Not everyone who suffers from digestive problems needs a gastroenterologist. Many digestive disturbances are diagnosed and managed well by general internists, surgeons and others. Their skills are most necessary when special knowledge in diagnosis and treatment is required.
Gastroenterologists do not perform surgery. They may, however, perform procedures such as liver biopsy and examinations of the esophagus, stomach, small and large bowel, through the use of special flexible medical instruments called endoscopes.
If surgery is required, they work with surgeons to select the best operation for a patient and provide medical care following surgery.
How gastroenterologists work with other physicians
In most cases, you will still need a general internist or other primary care physician for medical care unrelated to the digestive tract, although some gastroenterologists maintain a general internal medicine practice as well as their subspecialty. If you have been referred by your primary care physician to a gastroenterologist, you will probably be referred back to your primary physician for follow-up care. If you require continuing care for GI-related conditions, your primary care physician and your gastroenterologist, working together, will recommend to you which physician you should see. Be sure to ask your gastroenterologist or referring physician if you have any questions about how your physicians are working together.