According to a recent study, nearly 40% of adults worldwide suffer from a functional gastrointestinal disorder (also known as digestive disease). This is where skilled gastroenterologists come in. In recognition of World Digestive Health Day, St. George’s University (SGU) School of Medicine, Grenada, in the Caribbean, explains what a gastroenterologist is, breaks down what their job entails and provides insight into how aspiring gastroenterologists can become one.
What is a gastroenterologist?
As a subspecialty of internal medicine, gastroenterology involves the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the digestive organs, including the stomach, bowels, liver, and gallbladder. Patients across multiple demographics rely on the expertise of these specialists to uncover the source of a range of uncomfortable symptoms.
What does a gastroenterologist do?
Patients are referred to a gastroenterologist when they are suffering from digestive issues. The work these specialists do requires a detailed understanding of the normal functions of the gastrointestinal organs—this helps them pinpoint abnormalities.
In their diagnostic efforts, gastroenterologists may observe the movement of material through the stomach and intestine, the digestion and absorption of nutrients into the body, the removal of waste from the system, and the function of the liver as a digestive organ. In doing so, they’re able to locate potential anomalies that may indicate common conditions, including colon tumor and cancer, chronic liver diseases, gastrointestinal reflux, intestinal ulcers, inflammatory bowel diseases, irritable bowel syndrome and inflammation of the pancreas.
Gastroenterologists are trained extensively in endoscopy, which is the use of flexible scopes with built-in cameras to visualize the inside of the intestinal tract. This training includes detailed study of how and when to perform endoscopy, therapeutic interventions to intervene on various pathology, optimal methods to complete these tests effectively and safely, and the proper use of sedating medications to ensure the comfort and safety of patients.
These physicians are also trained in advanced procedures such as endoscopic biliary examination (including stone removal), endoscopic mucosal resection, placement of internal drainage tubes, and endoscopic ultrasound. Once a diagnosis is reached, gastroenterologists work in tandem with a patient’s primary care team to craft a treatment plan.
How do you become a gastroenterologist?
Physicians who specialize in gastroenterology exhibit extreme dedication and attention to detail. As such, the path to becoming a gastroenterologist is quite rigorous.
After completing medical school and clinical rotations, you’ll need to participate in a three-year internal medicine residency. SGU has been the largest provider of doctors into first-year US residencies for the last nine years, with over 980 US residencies in 2023, including over 340 obtained in internal medicine*. The residency is then followed by a gastroenterology fellowship, which could take an additional 2–3 years. The fellowship is where you’ll learn how to evaluate patients with gastrointestinal symptoms, treat a broad range of digestive conditions, and provide recommendations to maintain health and prevent disease.
Interested in becoming a gastroenterologist?
Gastroenterologists are highly trained specialists who use their comprehensive knowledge of the entire gastrointestinal tract to provide high-quality diagnostic care for patients experiencing uncomfortable digestive issues. In many cases, these physicians are able to provide answers, treatment, and ultimately relief for their patients.
Students who are drawn to the idea of uncovering answers to difficult medical questions through the use of complex diagnostic and therapeutic procedures could thrive in a gastroenterology career.
The most effective way these aspiring students can get started is to seek out a quality medical school that can provide the education and training needed to excel in this field. If you’re a problem solver by nature with an innate attention to detail, you might thrive in this diagnostic role.