Gastroenterologists are physicians that specialize in treating conditions affecting the digestive system - these doctors can treat common disorders or those that are more complex, such as GI cancer.
Gastroenterology is a subspecialty of internal medicine encompassing the diagnosis, treatment and management of disorders and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), digestive system and related organs. This includes the structures and organs from the mouth to the anus involved in the ingestion or digestion of foods, as well as those involved in the excretion of processed biological materials.
Gastroenterologists are able to treat a wide range of diseases and disorders of the more than 25 foot long digestive tract, ranging from the very common to the very rare. These may include heartburn, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gallstones, constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and gastrointestinal cancers, among other disorders. When diagnosing these and other disorders, gastroenterologists rely on a variety of techniques and procedures including colonoscopies, biopsies, esophageal dilation, endoscopies, X-rays and various other diagnostic procedures.
After a successful diagnosis of the condition or disease, gastroenterologists will personalize a treatment and management plan for each patient. For example, if a patient is diagnosed with IBS (a long term, chronic condition that causes patients to suffer recurring bouts of abdominal pain and diarrhea or constipation), the physician must tailor a treatment and management plan that is unique to the patient, based on their specific needs and medical situation. This may include suggestions with regard to diet and exercise, the prescription of medications and in some cases, surgery.
The training and education required to become a gastroenterologist is challenging and demanding - it comprises approximately 13 years of post-secondary training. Commencing with the completion of an undergraduate or postgraduate degree, the student must attend four years of medical school, graduating with either an MD or DO degree. Upon graduation from medical school, the physician must enter an accredited residency program.
Gastroenterologists generally complete three years of internal medicine residency training. Upon completion of the residency program, the physician must enter into a gastroenterology fellowship. Specialized fellowships in gastroenterology generally last two to three years; the skills and knowledge specific to the specialty will be learned, emphasized and cultivated.
During the fellowship, the physician gains the experience necessary to treat the wide range gastrointestinal diseases and complications by treating patients in a clinical setting while under the supervision of experienced gastroenterologists. The fellow is trained in endoscopic and other procedures; they become familiar with patient diagnosis, care and treatment techniques. After the requisite training has been completed, the physician has met the requirements to take the certification exam administered by the American Board of Internal Medicine. After passing the ABIM exam, the physician will have earned the title of board-certified gastroenterologist. Additional certifications are also available from the American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery (ABCRS).