Gastroenterology is one of the highest-paying medical specialties, but you shouldn’t choose your specialty as a physician based solely on earning potential. After all, if you don’t like the area of medicine you practice, you’re even likely to suffer from burnout – as a third of gastroenterologists do, anyway – and struggle to relate to, and provide compassionate care to, your patients. Before you decide to pursue a career as a gastroenterologist – a specialist in the human digestive system, as the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported – you should have a better idea of what it means to work in this career path. Although all gastroenterologists focus on the function and disease of the digestive system in some capacity, their careers can vary widely based on where they work, what subspecialties they may focus on, how they choose to approach their training and what skills and aptitudes they possess.
Specializing in the Digestive System
Gastroenterology is a specialization within the field of internal medicine. Internal medicine is the science-based branch of medicine that focuses on the management of internal diseases, typically in an adult patient population. Gastroenterologists are internists that focus on internal diseases that begin in or impact the digestive system.
The digestive system encompasses more than a dozen of the organs involved in the processing of nutrients consumed as foods or beverages, from intake through excretion of waste material. Gastroenterologists usually don’t handle matters pertaining to the mouth, which falls under the purview of dentists. They also typically don’t specialize in the urinary system, since specialists in urology or nephrology (kidney function and disorders) often handle these medical matters. They may, however, treat problems involving the stomach, small and large intestine, esophagus, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, rectum, anus and other parts of the digestive tract, Healthline reported. Gastroenterologists may focus generally on the digestive system as a whole or may specialize in certain types of medical conditions or advanced gastrointestinal procedures.
Gastroenterologists diagnose and treat digestive system disorders, sometimes with the same procedure. In an upper endoscopy, for example, a gastroenterologist uses an endoscope to view the inside of the esophagus, stomach and small intestine for diagnostic purposes or to perform interventions up to and including surgeries. Colonoscopies, often performed for routine cancer screening as well as for potential symptoms of colon cancer, use endoscope equipment to examine the lower digestive tract.
In a specialty called hepatology, highly trained gastroenterologists may even specialize in treating advanced liver disease and performing liver transplants, the American College of Physicians reported.
Preparing for a Career in Gastroenterology
Like physicians in other medical specialties, gastroenterologists require a great deal of formal education and training. After you earn your bachelor’s degree, you will usually spend four years earning a medical degree, like a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.). Once you complete medical school, a three-year residency in the branch of internal medicine awaits you. That residency is enough to qualify as a general internist, but not a gastroenterologist. To specialize in gastroenterology, you need to complete another 36 months of training in the form of a fellowship, the American Medical Association reported. If you want to further specialize in your career, you may need to spend another year on clinical experience or advanced training in the type of disease or endoscopy procedure that interests you. All in all, if you want to be a gastroenterologist, you have to be in it for the long haul. It will take you at least 14 years of study and training, from the time you first begin pursuing your bachelor’s degree, to meet the requirements needed to become a gastroenterologist.
The best gastroenterologists bring together both technical skills and interpersonal skills. It’s important to be a compassionate care provider, especially when your patients may be in physical pain or discomfort or otherwise feel embarrassed about gastrointestinal issues. You must communicate clearly and professionally not only with patients but also with the numerous other healthcare providers who work alongside you regularly. However, it’s also crucial in this branch of medicine to have the strong hand-eye coordination needed to successfully perform endoscopies, colonoscopies and other procedures without causing complications such as perforating the colon.
The typical day of a gastroenterologist differs depending on where you work – whether in a hospital where overnight shifts and emergency surgeries may be required or in an office where procedures and appointments are scheduled in advance.