Also called “GI doctors,” gastroenterologists treat problems and diseases of the digestive system and are experts in how the digestive system works. As experts, they can do more than just treat problems. They can also help both adults and children learn what they need to do to keep their system healthy.
Here is information that can help you understand what kind of training GI doctors get, what they do, why you might be referred to one, and what you can expect in terms of care.
What Does a Gastroenterologist Do?
If you’ve gone to a gastroenterologist, you know you were likely referred because something was wrong with the way your body handles food. Lots of different conditions can cause a problem. Those conditions include things such as:
- Colon polyps, or small clusters of cells on the colon lining
- Some cancers of the gut
- Liver disease
- Sores on the stomach lining and small intestine
- Inflammation of the large intestine or pancreas
- Gallbladder conditions
- Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis (inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD)
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Internal bleeding in the digestive system
- Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that can harm the small intestine
GI docs’ expertise include how the digestive system:
- Moves material through the stomach and intestines
- Digests and absorbs nutrients
- Removes waste
The main medical procedure these doctors perform is endoscopy. For this, they use a flexible, lighted tube with a built-in camera to see inside your intestines.
Gastroenterologists aren’t surgeons, but they work closely with them when needed.
When Should I See a GI Doctor?
Adults and children see this type of specialist for gut-related symptoms or diseases, such as:
- Trouble swallowing
- Stomach pain
- Often feeling sick to their stomach or throwing up
- Yellowing of the skin
- Frequent diarrhea
- Ongoing constipation
- Blood in their stool
If you have certain liver conditions, you may see a hepatologist. That’s a gastroenterologist with special training in liver diseases.
What to Expect at Your Appointment
Most people go to a GI doctor after their primary care doctor refers them. You may need to take some tests before your appointment. If so, your primary care doctor will order those tests.
You might get referred to a GI doctor to check on symptoms you’re having or for specific tests, such as endoscopy, colonoscopy, or an X-ray of your digestive system. If you need one of those tests, you’ll get detailed instructions in advance about how to prepare.
How to Become a Gastroenterologist
GI doctors graduate from medical school, like other doctors. Then they do a hospital residency for 3 years. While there, they get training in general internal medicine. Next comes a 3-year fellowship. As fellows, they:
- Learn from experts in their field
- Treat patients
- Learn how to take care of patients in an office and a hospital
- Provide health and disease prevention recommendations
They also get special training in:
- Sedation (putting patients to sleep)
- Reading test results
Some programs also offer more training in research, advanced endoscopy, inflammatory bowel disease, and other areas.
After fellowship, gastroenterologists can take an exam to become “board-certified.” Then, doctors take follow-up board exams regularly throughout their career.
To become a hepatologist, they’ll do extra training during or after their fellowship.
National Jewish Health: “Gastroenterology Tests.”
American College of Gastroenterology: “What is a Gastroenterologist?”
Johns Hopkins Medicine: “Gastroenterology and Hepatology.”
Penn Medicine: “Gastrointestinal Surgical Procedures.”
Intermountain Healthcare: “Gastrointestinal Surgery.”
American Medical Association: “Gastroenterology.”
Cleveland Clinic: “The Structure and Function of the Digestive System.”
Mayo Clinic: “Infant jaundice,” “Toxic hepatitis,” “Colon polyps,” “Pancreatitis,” “Microscopic colitis.” “Peptic Ulcer.”
UNC School of Medicine: “Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology.”
Celiac Disease Foundation: “What is Celiac Disease?”