Gastroenterologist: Your Stomach & GI Specialist

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is a gastroenterologist?

A gastroenterologist specializes in preventing, diagnosing and treating conditions of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, or digestive system. This includes the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas and gallbladder. A GI specialist focuses on the health needs of adults with digestive problems.

A gastroenterologist typically: 

  • Evaluates a patient’s medical history and educates the patient about digestive health and disease prevention

  • Performs colonoscopies, endoscopies, and other imaging exams of the digestive tract

  • Orders and interprets laboratory tests and GI function studies

  • Prescribes medications

  • Screens, treats and monitors GI cancers

  • Diagnoses and treats digestive disorders including ulcers, reflux conditions, bowel diseases, motility problems, and liver disease

  • Performs endoscopic procedures on the digestive system, such as biopsies, polyp removal, intestinal dilation, placement of drainage tubes, and tumor removal without surgery

A gastroenterologist may also be known by the following names: GI specialist, GI doctor, or stomach doctor.

Who should see a gastroenterologist?

In most cases, people visit a gastrointestinal doctor when their primary care doctor refers them to one. The purpose of the referral is for the proper screening, diagnosis or treatment of a digestive problem. However, a gastroenterologist is not a surgeon. If you need GI surgery, your GI doctor (or your primary physician) will refer you to a surgeon.

If you require continuing care for a digestive condition, your GI doctor will let you know if you should continue to see him or her or return to your primary care doctor. Because gastroenterologists are also trained as internists, some of them choose to maintain an internal medicine practice and provide general healthcare for adults. If this is the case, your GI doctor may also serve as your primary care doctor.

When should you see a gastroenterologist?

Consider see a gastroenterologist if you develop any of the following symptoms or conditions: 

You should also seek care from a gastroenterologist under the following situations:

  • You are 50 years of age or older and have not been screened for colorectal cancer.

  • You are 40 years of age or older, you have inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of colorectal cancer or polyps, and have not been screened for colorectal cancer.

If you need GI care, find an experienced gastroenterologist near you. If your child needs care, look for a board-certified pediatric gastroenterologist.

What does a gastroenterologist treat?

A gastroenterologist treats the following types of conditions and diseases:

What does a gastroenterologist test?

A gastroenterologist can order or perform a wide variety of diagnostic and screening tests including:

  • Colonoscopy to examine your colon and rectum

  • Endoscopy to examine your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, bile ducts, pancreatic ducts, and gallbladder ducts

  • Imaging tests including X-rays, barium enemas, barium swallows (upper GI series), ultrasounds, CT (computed tomography), virtual colonoscopy, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), gastric emptying studies, and gallbladder scans called HIDA scans

  • Laboratory tests including blood tests, urine tests, fecal occult blood tests, hepatitis panels, H. pylori tests for ulcers, and autoimmune factor tests

What procedures and treatments does a gastroenterologist do?

Gastroenterologists order or perform various procedures and treatments to manage digestive health conditions. If you need GI surgery, your doctor will refer you to either a general surgeon or a specialized surgeon depending on your condition.

Common procedures and treatments include: 

  • Cancer treatments including endoscopic laser therapy, photodynamic light therapy, freezing, and removal

  • Endoscopic procedures including biopsies, polyp removal, esophageal and intestinal dilation, hemostasis to stop bleeding, tumor removal without surgery, drainage tube placement, and stone removal from bile ducts or gallbladder ducts

  • Medications including antibiotics, antivirals, acid blockers, nausea medicines, antidiarrheal drugs, promotility agents, enzyme therapy, and immunotherapy

  • Nutritional support including enteral feedings through feeding tubes, total parental nutrition (TPN) through intravenous catheters, and growth hormone therapy for short bowel syndrome

Gastroenterologist training and certification

To increase the likelihood of receiving highly skilled gastrointestinal care, choose a doctor who is board certified in gastroenterology. Gastroenterology is a subspecialty of internal medicine.

Doctors don’t have to be board certified in the subspecialty to practice gastroenterology and perform GI procedures. However, subspecialty certification verifies the doctor has completed higher level training and passed an exam demonstrating his or her mastery of gastroenterology.

The American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Osteopathic Board of Internal Medicine certify eligible doctors in gastroenterology.

A board-certified gastroenterologist has:

  • Graduated from medical school (MD) or a college of osteopathic medicine (DO)

  • Completed specialized residency training and earned board certification in internal medicine

  • Completed specialized fellowship training and earned board certification in gastroenterology

To maintain board certification, a doctor must participate in the Board’s ongoing certification program for gastroenterology.

If you are comparing several different GI doctors, consider the doctor’s background information, availability, accepted insurance plans, and online patient ratings and reviews to help you make a confident decision.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 22
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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