Many family doctors or internists treat both men and women, but some female patients prefer a doctor with specialized expertise in women's health. Those physicians are called obstetrician/gynecologists, commonly abbreviated to OB/GYN. Obstetrics is a specialty relating to pregnancy and childbirth, while gynecology focuses more broadly on womens' health and reproductive health. The two are separate but closely linked fields, and are treated as a single specialty for training and certification purposes.
Obstetricians focus their practices on the process of childbearing, sometimes beginning care before conception and continuing until after the birth. Obstetricians monitor fetal development and maternal health throughout the pregnancy, and some have advanced training in managing high-risk pregnancies. They can also perform a variety of traditional or non-invasive surgeries on the mother or the fetus, if needed. They also deliver babies through natural childbirth or caesarian section, often making that decision at the last minute if the delivery is complicated or if the life of the mother or infant is threatened.
Gynecologists are physicians who treat disorders and conditions of the female reproductive system, from irregular menstruation to life-threatening cancers. These have broad implications for women's health, so gynecologists often act as primary long-term physicians. They perform or order a variety of routine screening procedures, including mammograms and pap tests, to screen for common cancers. They're also trained to perform a variety of surgical procedures on the female reproductive organs, including operations to halt or restore fertility. They provide medications and coping strategies for women going through menopause, or dealing with irregular or unusually painful menstruation. Some specialize in areas including oncology, reproductive endocrinology or urogynecology.
Similarities and Differences
Some patients remain childless by choice throughout their reproductive life, and only ever require gynecological care. Otherwise, women typically require both types of care during their lives and the specialties overlap significantly. Obstetricians tend to be specialists, typically taking patients for the duration of their pregnancies. Gynecologists are more likely to provide long-term primary care, building relationships with their patients. The difference comes down to personal preference. A trained OB/GYN can choose whether to practice only obstetrics, only gynecology, or both in varying proportions. For example, older OB/GYNs might choose to stop offering obstetrics services to avoid getting calls 24/7.
The training for any physician begins the same way, with eight years of college. The first four years are spent in a bachelor's degree program, building a foundation of math, humanities and science courses. Medical or osteopathic college takes another four years, divided between classroom instruction and supervised clinical rotations. At graduation, the new doctors enter a residency program approved by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. OB/GYN residencies consist of one year of general internship, followed by three years of training in obstetrics and gynecology. At the end of that time, residents take written and oral exams from the Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Those who pass become board-certified OB/GYNs.