What is a Gastroenterologist?

If you're having problems with your digestive system, your primary care doctor may refer you to a gastroenterologist.

A gastroenterologist is a doctor who specializes in preventing, diagnosing and treating disorders of the gastrointestinal tract. That includes the esophagus, stomach, intestines, pancreas and liver. All of these organs have roles in aiding digestion.

When you eat, food is broken down and nutrients are absorbed. It's how your body gets the fuel it needs to function. Problems with any one of your digestive organs can interfere with this process. Depending on the organ affected, you may have symptoms such as heartburn, trouble swallowing, bloating, pain, nausea or diarrhea.

Skilled specialists

Specific conditions gastroenterologists address include:

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Hepatitis
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Celiac disease
  • Diverticulitis
  • Nutritional problems
  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Cirrhosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Cancer

Some of these conditions may also require surgery, which gastroenterologists don't perform. But they do work with surgeons to make sure patients receive the best possible care.

Gastroenterologists, however, may perform procedures that allow patients to avoid surgery. For example, there are nonsurgical techniques to remove stones from the bile ducts in the liver and to treat certain tumors.

Other procedures gastroenterologists commonly perform include:

Colonoscopy. This involves a long flexible tube with a light and camera. It allows doctors to directly visualize the large intestine — the colon — for signs of cancer and growths (polyps) that can be removed before they become cancerous.

Endoscopy. This procedure involves instruments similar to those used for colonoscopy. But they're used to examine and treat the esophagus, stomach and other organs.

Rigorous training

Gastroenterologists are highly educated. Like other doctors, they complete four years of medical school. They then receive three years of training in internal medicine, which is followed by a two- to four-year fellowship in gastroenterology. They may also become board-certified.

Sources: American College of Gastroenterology; American Gastroenterological Association