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A hormone doctor, or an endocrinologist, is a physician who treats diseases related to the endocrine system. While primary care physicians (family practitioners and internal medicine physicians) can treat many hormonal disorders without a need for specialized training, a physician may also receive advanced training and specialize in endocrinology. A primary care physician can determine whether he or she can treat a patient or whether the patient should be referred to a specialist treating only disorders of the endocrine system.
The endocrine system is composed of many glands, including the pituitary, thyroid, parathyroids, adrenals, hypothalamus, pineal body, ovaries and testicles. The islet cells of the pancreas are also part of the endocrine system. These glands secrete hormones (chemical messengers) that regulate the body’s metabolism, growth, sexual development and sexual function, by complex feedback systems comparable to a thermostat regulating room temperature.
A hormone doctor can specialize in diseases of one or two glands or treat patients in all areas of endocrinology. A large part of a typical practice could involve treating diabetes and related complications. The physician may also treat thyroid disorders, inborn metabolic disorders, over- and underproduction of hormones, osteoporosis, menopause, cholesterol disorders, hypertension, and short or tall stature. Patients with endocrine cancer are usually referred to an oncologist.
To treat non-reproductive hormonal disorders, a physician generally completes four years of medical or osteopath school and a three-year residency in either family medicine or internal medicine. He or she must pass a board examination to become board certified in family or internal medicine. To become board certified as an endocrine specialist, the physician completes a three-year endocrinology fellowship program and passes a board certification examination.
Reproductive endocrinologists complete four years of residency training in obstetrics and gynecology, rather than training in family medicine or internal medicine. They must complete two or three years of fellowship training in reproductive endocrinology and infertility and pass the board certification examination. These specialists treat infertility by using in vitro fertilization, embryo and sperm freezing, assisted embryo hatching, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and other emerging technologies. Reproductive endocrinologists also treat a wide range of reproductive disorders, including endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome, gonadal dysgenesis, galactorrhea, repeat pregnancy loss, ectopic pregnancy and excess hair in women, to name just a few.
A hormone doctor may work in academic medical centers, community hospitals, private group practices or private solo practices. Each situation can involve different work hours, a different patient base, and different lifestyles. Unlike surgical specialties, hormone doctors generally do not take call hours, but they may be called on an emergency basis to see a patient in a hospital when the physician on staff cannot appropriately treat the patient.
Maryam Lebeau has a particular interest in medical ethics, law and health policy. Lebeau has written professionally since 2002, focusing on health, medicine, science, family and crafts. She holds a B.S. in nature science and mathematics from Washington and Lee University.