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What is a Gastrointestinal Doctor?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Feb 06, 2024
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A gastrointestinal doctor is a medical professional who specializes in the research, diagnosis, and treatment of various digestive system problems. Professionals have detailed knowledge about the different diseases, injuries, and symptoms that patients may have, and utilize sophisticated medical equipment to look for problems and provide treatment. Some doctors specialize by treating a particular category of conditions, such as cancers or bowel problems, or focus on a specific population of patients, such as children or the elderly. A gastrointestinal doctor might work in a hospital, medical clinic, private office, or a joint practice with other internal medicine specialists.

Problems with digestive organs, including the intestines, stomach, and liver, can range from mildly uncomfortable to severely debilitating. A gastrointestinal doctor is able to determine the severity and nature of symptoms by asking patients questions about their medical histories and lifestyles, conducting physical examinations, using ultrasound and x-ray equipment, and ordering laboratory tests on blood, stools, urine, and tissue samples. With the help of nurses and medical aides, a doctor is usually able to pinpoint symptoms, make diagnoses, and administer treatment. Depending on the cause of digestive problems, the physician might prescribe antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications, suggest healthy lifestyle changes, or recommend surgery to correct severe conditions. A gastrointestinal doctor treats a wide range of diseases and ailments, including Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, and hemorrhoids.

Becoming a gastrointestinal doctor involves many years of education and clinical training. Professionals are required to earn doctoral degrees from accredited universities, which usually takes about four years after a completing a premedical bachelor's program. New doctors in the United States and many other countries typically hold one-year internships at hospitals and medical clinics after college to gain hands-on experience and better prepare for their eventual careers. After completing internships, they usually assume residencies that last up to six years. The first three years of a residency are completed in an internal medicine practice or hospital, and the final two to three years are spent in a strictly gastrointestinal medicine setting.

Most countries require new gastrointestinal doctors to pass licensing exams before they are allowed to practice independently. Exams typically cover medical terms, the different types of diseases and injuries they may encounter, ethics, insurance laws, and other aspects pertinent to providing quality care. Licensed doctors are often successful in joining a group practice or opening up their own facilities.

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Discussion Comments
By ddljohn — On Jun 28, 2012
@alisha-- I think part of the problem is that when we go to see a gastrointestinal doctor for a consultation, we don't really know what we need from them. The truth is, doctors can only help us as much as we let them. We know our body and our symptoms best and have to direct them in the right direction.

I have Celiac disease and it took me a while to get a diagnosis from a gastrointestinal specialist. When you go in and say, "there is something wrong, please figure it out," it's not easy for them! They have to run tests, listen to your symptoms and rule out the possibilities. So patience is important, it's not right to just give up on your doctor.

By discographer — On Jun 27, 2012

@turkay1-- I have been treated by a gastrointestinal doctor overseas too and I was much more pleased with that treatment.

I suffered from acid reflux, nausea, vomiting and stomach cramps for more than two years. I saw a gastrointestinal doctor but he only asked for an x-ray and directed me to take over-the-counter acid medications when he didn't see anything wrong with my x-ray. I did that but my symptoms continued.

Then I had to go to Germany for a few weeks for work and my friend there said that I should just see a private doctor there. I went to a gastrointestinal specialist in Germany. He had me do a breath test. I basically breathed onto a strip for a few minutes. They tested the strip to check for bacteria in my stomach. They found a stomach bug called helicobacter pylori.

I was prescribed antibiotics for it and after finishing the antibiotics, all my symptoms disappeared. You have no idea how upset I was. I suffered for years for no reason! I don't want to generalize my experience for all gastrointestinal doctors. But the first doctor I saw in the US should had requested this breath test instead of making me pay for an x-ray. I paid less for the private gastrointestinal specialist in Germany than I did for the x-ray in the US.

By candyquilt — On Jun 27, 2012

@shell4life-- I think doctors in the US, including gastrointestinal doctors, are very lucky. In many other countries, doctors make much less than American doctors do even though they work just as much or even more. And the education and training required to become a doctor is the same in most countries.

When I lived in Turkey, I had to see a gastrointestinal doctor several times. I went to a university hospital because these are usually the best and have the top specialists. But seeing a doctor in a hospital like that in Turkey means that you have to go to the hospital at six in the morning, get in line and wait for your turn. When you do see the doctor, everything is rushed. If you have to get blood work or other procedures done, you have to do the same thing when you go in to pick up results.

In the US, you might not see a gastrointestinal doctor right away. Usually the family doctor will send you to one if it's necessary. And you might have to wait a week or so for an appointment. But you will still have more time with the doctor and will not have to wait all day.

By orangey03 — On Jun 26, 2012

My ex-boyfriend had to see a GI doctor regularly. He had Crohn’s disease, and sometimes, the flareups would be so severe that he would be unable to eat for days.

It got so bad that he started losing a lot of weight. He made regular trips to see his doctor. In fact, the doctor recommended a monthly visit, though usually a GI doctor would only see a person every few months for a checkup.

The doctor kept him on medication that lessened the severity of his symptoms somewhat, but Crohn’s causes a lifelong battle inside your body. It’s good to be in the care of a physician who specializes in this field.

By StarJo — On Jun 25, 2012

@kylee07drg - I guess that depends on the doctor. I had to see a pediatric gastrointestinal doctor when I was nine, and though he made rounds at the hospital, he also had his own office for seeing patients.

I had rotovirus as a child, and it made me vomit and have diarrhea every few minutes. I had to be pumped full of fluids to stay hydrated, and a gastrointestinal doctor diagnosed me with the virus.

He had several patients staying in the hospital that he was responsible for, but he also had his own medical office across the street. People with more minor conditions could come and see him there, and usually they were referred to him by their general physicians.

By kylee07drg — On Jun 24, 2012

Do gastroenterology doctors usually have their own practice, or do they typically spend more time at hospitals, treating patients with serious conditions? It just seems like someone with knowledge in an area like this would spend most of his time working on the critically ill.

I think of terrible stomach pain when I think of gastrointestinal doctors. This is probably because my little sister had to see one in the hospital after a night of pain so severe it made her scream.

The doctor would come in every day and check on her. After she was released, he never said anything about making a follow-up appointment, so this made me think that he worked only for the hospital, treating patients who were staying there.

By shell4life — On Jun 23, 2012

It sure does take a lot of motivation to become a gastrointestinal specialist. My uncle went through eight years of school, plus all the years of training afterward, but it has paid off.

When he was a resident, he barely made enough money to afford the rent for a small apartment. It can be really frustrating, and you can ask yourself if all this time spent making next to nothing is really worth it, but those who hang in there reap the benefits.

He is now a full-fledged gastrointestinal doctor, and he makes enough money to afford a nice house, a vacation home, and plenty of trips to exotic locations. Of course, he spends most of his time working, but that just makes the vacations that much more special when he does take them.

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