We all turn to doctors for help whenever we experience health problems that home remedies cannot treat. Although we simply call them doctors, there’s a wide variety of fields in the industry of medicine and health service. In this article, we will focus on the field of gastroenterology and provide the specifics regarding the expertise, tasks, and responsibilities of a gastroenterologist.
The National Health Service Constitution defines gastroenterology as a branch of medicine focusing on the health of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract or the human digestive system. The functions of the digestive system include digesting and transporting food, extracting and absorbing necessary nutrients, supporting the role of the liver in digestion, and expelling waste products from the body. Any abnormal activity that interferes with or antagonizes the GI system is an indication of a health problem. This is where the responsibility of gastroenterologists comes in.
Gastroenterologists, as the name implies, are physicians specializing in the area of gastroenterology. These specialists are mainly tasked with the diagnosis and treatment of GI diseases in patients of all ages and gender. They use instruments to perform endoscopic procedures for examining the GI tract. Based on the findings from these procedures, they are able to make a general evaluation that leads to a diagnosis. Gastroenterologists don’t perform surgical operations. However, in several cases, they coordinate with GI surgeons. Primarily, they only provide consultative services such as checkups and examinations in a hospital or clinic setting.
The mouth is considered a part of the GI system. However, gastroenterologists often don’t provide any health service in this area. The health of the oral cavity is the concern of dentists and other dental experts.
The digestive system also includes the tongue, pharynx, esophagus, pancreas, liver, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, gallbladder, epiglottis, rectum, and anus. However, diseases and conditions of the rectum and anus are generally the business of proctologists.
Although gastroenterology is a medical specialty focusing on the GI tract, some gastroenterologists also have subspecialties on specific types of gastroenterology. These include areas such as hepatology, transplantation, pancreatic disorder, reflux esophagitis, inflammatory bowel disease, gastrointestinal cancer, and endoscopic surveillance.
Education and Training
Becoming a full-pledged gastroenterologist requires obtaining a four-year college degree. After finishing their bachelor’s, the next step is the completion of another four years in medical school. The following requirement will be to accomplish a three-year residency in internal medicine. This is a training program that allows those who aim to be gastroenterologists to coordinate with experienced gastroenterologists and benefit from professional mentorship in an actual hospital setting.
After the completion of the residency, another two or three years of fellowship is needed for them to undergo more specialized training in gastroenterology. According to the American College of Gastroenterology, the fellowship is a rigorous program that allows future gastroenterologists to receive direct training from recognized medical professionals and acquire a more in-depth understanding of various gastrointestinal diseases. Through this, they are able to learn how to perform check-ups on patients with gastrointestinal issues, provide treatment for different types of conditions, and give medical advice and recommendations for promoting GI health and preventing disease.
The fellowship program also involves intensive and tedious training in performing endoscopic procedures such as upper endoscopy, colonoscopy, and sigmoidoscopy. Endoscopy is a method for viewing the inside of the GI tract through the utilization of specialized lighted tubes with video cameras. Gastroenterology trainees also receive training on how to perform endoscopy for more advanced GI diseases. Most importantly, future gastroenterologists master how to give an accurate interpretation of the biopsy results and findings so they can construct suitable recommendations for the treatment of GI conditions.
Resource centers report that there are several groups which oversee the fellowship training in order to ensure the assimilation of high-quality and uniform education. These include the American Board of Internal Medicine, the American Gastroenterological Association, the American College of Gastroenterology, and the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy.
After the Fellowship
Once the fellowship has been successfully completed, the trainees or “fellows” as they are often called will now be considered “Board Eligible.” This qualifies them to take a specialty exam namely the gastroenterology board certification test. The American Board of Internal Medicine is responsible for administering the test and certifying the triumphant test-takers.
Gastroenterologists are equipped with the knowledge and training required for treating many gastrointestinal ailments such as colon cancer and polyps, peptic ulcers, gastroesophageal reflux disease, colitis, nutritional deficiencies caused by malabsorption, irritable bowel syndrome, pancreatic disorders, hepatitis C, jaundice, hemorrhoids, and conditions of the gallbladder and biliary tract.
They also conduct several nonsurgical procedures for specific functions. For instance, endoscopic ultrasounds are done to assess the upper and lower GI tract. Colonoscopies are meant for detecting colon polyps and diagnosing colon cancer. An advanced procedure called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography is for discovering tumors, tissue scarring, and gallstones in the bile duct. Sigmoidoscopies are procedures for identifying the cause of bowel pain and blood loss. Liver biopsies are performed to examine fibrosis and inflammation. For evaluating the small intestine, capsule endoscopies and double-balloon enteroscopy procedures are executed.
When to See a Gastroenterologist
You may be advised by your primary healthcare provider to consult a specialist if you are suspected of having GI ailments. Symptoms associated with problems of the digestive system include having blood in your stool, painful or unexplained trouble with swallowing, and persistent abdominal pain.
Individuals over 50 years old may also be referred to a gastroenterologist for preventive care as they have a higher likelihood of developing colon cancer than other age groups. They are therefore recommended to receive regular screenings. If colon cancer is part of your family history, it’s also highly suggested that you discuss with your physician the right time for receiving a general screening.