What Is a Gastroenterologist, and What Do They Do?
Gastroenterologists have an essential role in the health and wellbeing of the digestive tract. They practice specialized medicine, which means that they focus on specific parts of the body. A general practitioner, on the other hand, examines and treats the entire body. Gastroenterologists treat conditions that are chronic (long-term) or acute (sudden and severe). A gastroenterologist completes over a decade of formal education and hands-on training before they can practice.
Find out more about what a gastroenterologist is and what they do.
What is a Gastroenterologist?
A gastroenterologist is a medical specialist who diagnoses and treats disorders of the digestive tract or gastrointestinal (GI) system. People turn to a gastroenterologist when their condition is beyond the capabilities of their primary physician. The primary doctor is generally the person who refers a patient to a gastroenterologist. A gastroenterologist treats both women and men.
What Parts of the Body Does a Gastroenterologist Treat?
A gastroenterologist treats these parts of the digestive tract:
- Large intestine.
- Small intestine.
- Bile ducts.
What Conditions Does a Gastroenterologist Handle?
A gastroenterologist is trained to diagnose and treat a multitude of conditions, both common and uncommon. These include:
- Gallbladder Disease.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease
GERD (Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease) is a condition in which the lower part of the esophagus closes improperly. This permits acid to seep into your esophagus, causing inflammation. Although the condition is manageable, surgery may be required for more severe cases.
Fatty Liver Disease
Fatty liver disease is a liver condition that’s not caused by alcohol. The main issue is that too much fat is stored in the liver. A more severe version of this disease causes damage similar to the damage caused by alcohol: inflammation, scarring (cirrhosis), and liver failure.
Crohn’s disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disorder (IBD). It causes intense pain, severe diarrhea, malnutrition, and exhaustion. Crohn’s disease can be debilitating and even life-threatening.
Although it’s incurable, some treatments can encourage remission and diminish inflammation. In extreme cases, sections of the colon or small intestine may need to be removed.
An anal fissure is a tear in the anal canal lining. It causes sharp pain and bleeding when you have a bowel movement. Although most anal fissures are superficial, chronic ones are deeper and last more than six weeks. You should immediately report to your doctor any type of rectal or anal bleeding.
A polyp is a nodule that forms on the wall of the large intestine or colon. They generally occur in people over age 40. Although polyps can be harmless, they can become cancerous and are removed during a colonoscopy.
When someone has diverticulitis, areas of the large intestine’s wall weaken and swell outward. The site can become inflamed and infected, accompanied by chills, cramps, fever, and nausea. Sometimes, there are no symptoms, and the condition evades diagnosis and is only discovered during a routine colonoscopy.
Celiac disease is severe gluten sensitivity. Gluten is a substance that’s found in any foods containing wheat, rye, or barley, including beer, pie, pizza, and French fries. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system attacks the small intestine’s lining. This gradually breaks down the lining, leading to debilitating pain.
Procedures Used by a Gastroenterologist
These are procedures that gastroenterologists typically use:
- Polyp removal.
- Tube placement.
- Tumor removal.
- Analysis of constipation or fecal issues.
- Endoscopy – a procedure for examining the digestive tract.
- Colonoscopy – a procedure for examining the entire colon.
- Testing for upper GI issues.
- Testing for issues in the esophagus.
- Stretching parts of the intestinal tract that have narrowed.
Gastroenterologists can also specialize in:
- Pancreatic disease.
- Endoscopic surveillance – an endoscopy is a non-surgical technique for seeing the digestive tract with a camera.
- Hepatology – treatment of diseases of the gallbladder, pancreas, liver, and biliary tree (the organs that produce and transport bile).
- IBS and chronic digestive tract inflammation.
- Reflux esophagitis – occurs when the stomach’s contents back up into your esophagus.
What Education Does a Gastroenterologist Need?
It takes ten or more years of intensive education and training to become a gastroenterologist. Here is the typical path that a gastroenterologist’s education takes:
Earn a Bachelor of Science. You need to earn a four-year undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree. This entails coursework such as physics, chemistry, biology, and a semester of organic chemistry, as well as statistics, calculus, literature, and psychology. You’ll also be required to study anatomy, physiology, and biochemistry.
Take the MCAT. The MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) is a computerized, multiple-choice test required for medical school admission. The exam is usually taken in the junior year of college, and contains four sections. Each section is individually scored and takes between 90 and 95 minutes, and has 50 to 60 questions. The entire test takes approximately 7.5 hours. The four sections are:
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems.
- Biochemical and Biological Foundations of Living Things.
- Biological, Social and Psychological Foundations of Behavior.
- Analysis and Reasoning Skills.
If you need to retake the test, this can be done three times in one year, four times in two years, and seven during a lifetime. Medical schools see all these scores, even the most mediocre, so it’s good to be as prepared as possible for the test.
After passing the MCAT, you’ll progress to medical school. You’ll receive a general medical degree, rather than one in any particular specialty. The first two years of medical school encompass lecture and laboratory courses, or “book learning.” This includes medical ethics, pharmacology, pathology, and anatomy. The last two years are devoted to clinical rotations, which provide real-world experience in various medical specialties.
Upon graduation, you’ll receive either an MD (Doctor of Medicine) or a DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) degree.
Next, you’ll take Parts One and Two of the US Medical Licensing Exam. To get licensed to practice, all physicians must pass Parts One and Two of the US Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE). The test is administered by the Federation of State Medical Boards and the National Board of Medical Examiners. The exam evaluates their understanding of how to use their knowledge and practical skills in real-life applications.
After the USMLE, an aspiring gastroenterologist must complete residency training. It is a three-year program, followed by a one-year internship that trains students in their chosen field.
In the residency stage of becoming a gastroenterologist, the student’s focus shifts from theoretical knowledge to practical, hands-on experience with real patients in medical settings such as hospitals. A physician supervises a resident.
After residency, students take part three of the United States Medical Licensing Exam. Passing students become licensed physicians who no longer require supervision.
A fellowship is intensive training in gastrointestinal disorders. It provides the physician with the additional expertise necessary to become a specialist. A candidate must learn how to diagnose and handle both ordinary and atypical gastrointestinal ailments in a patient care facility.
After successfully completing a fellowship, the practitioner can become certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Before obtaining a gastroenterology certification, they must receive a certificate in internal medicine. When a physician is certified, it means that they have demonstrated mastery of their specialization.
What Procedures Does a Gastroenterologist Perform?
A gastroenterologist performs many procedures related to the GI tract, including:
- Sigmoidoscopy – this procedure is used to analyze bowel blood loss or pain.
- Endoscopic Ultrasounds – used to scrutinize the lower and upper GI tract.
- Colonoscopy – colon polyps or cancer.
- Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography – this procedure addresses problems in the liver, gallbladder, bile ducts, and pancreas.
- Liver Biopsies – inflammation and fibrosis.
- Capsule Endoscopies – small intestine.
- Double Balloon Endoscopies – small intestine.
Gastroenterologists are intensively and thoroughly trained to diagnose and treat GI tract disorders accurately. They only specialize in this branch of medicine, so they bring focused expertise to any patient’s GI ailment.
Need to see a gastroenterologist? Then please contact us at GastroMD, and take the first step toward a healthier, happier life!
The team of professionals at GastroMD looks forward to working with you. We are one of the leading gastroenterology practices in the Tampa Bay area. We perform a host of diagnostic procedures using state-of-the-art equipment in a friendly, comfortable, and inviting atmosphere where patient care is always a top priority!