Gastroenterologists are physicians who have specific knowledge and expertise in treating the digestive system. A gastroenterologist specializes in diagnosing and treating problems with the esophagus, intestines, gallbladder, stomach, liver and pancreas.
Gastroenterologists have extensive knowledge about the movement of food and nutrients through the body. They most commonly treat such conditions as pancreatitis, colitis, gallbladder disease, peptic ulcer disease, colon polyps, colon cancer, hepatitis, irritable bowel syndrome and other medical conditions that disrupt the normal function of the digestive tract.
Gastroenterologists are often in charge of teams of nurse practitioners or physician assistants, so they must be able to work well with others and be confident leaders. Family doctors refer patients to gastroenterologists when a problem with the digestive system is unclear. Gastroenterologists perform a number of specialized tests to make an accurate diagnosis. During treatment, gastroenterologists confer with a patient's primary doctor or other specialists, such as oncologists when dealing with cancer or endocrinologists when dealing with the pancreas or hormone problems.
A gastroenterologist receives extensive training in endoscopic procedures. Most often, endoscopy involves using a long, thin tube with a light and tiny camera on the end. The gastroenterologist maneuvers the scope inside a person’s body to get a clear, up-close view of internal organs. Endoscopy is used to visually search for internal problems, remove polyps in the colon, widen narrow areas of the intestinal tract and esophagus, perform biopsies to test for cancer and fix internal bleeding problems. A gastroenterologist must be an expert in performing all these procedures safely, as well as in interpreting images and deciding upon treatment options. Some gastroenterologists undergo specific training to perform endoscopic surgeries.
In the U.S., a gastroenterologist must graduate with a bachelor degree from a college or university, complete another four years of medical school, go through an internal medicine residency for three years and, in most cases, continue on with specialized gastroenterology training through fellowships, which normally last another two to three years. After completing all their training, gastroenterologist hopefuls must become board certified by passing a test given by the American Board of Internal Medicine.
As with most medical specializations, the salary of a gastroenterologist is lucrative. According to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report, the average annual salary for a gastroenterologist in 2013 was $348,000, the fourth highest among all physicians.