Gastroenterologist: Your Stomach & GI Specialist
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
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:
Abdominal swelling, bloating or distention
Bleeding or pain with bowel movements
Changes in bowel habits or changes in stool diameter, color or consistency that lasts for more than 10 days
Diarrhea or constipation that does not go away or get better with over-the-counter treatments after a few days
Stomach or abdominal pain
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.
What does a gastroenterologist treat?
A gastroenterologist treats the following types of conditions and diseases:
GI cancer including esophageal, stomach, liver, pancreatic, gallbladder and colorectal cancers
Infections including diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
Upper GI disorders including heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), peptic ulcer disease, chronic vomiting, and gastroparesis (when your stomach fails to empty properly due to nerve damage)
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
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
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.