What Is a Gastroenterologist?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on July 16, 2023
3 min read

A gastroenterologist is a medical doctor with a specialized understanding of the digestive tract. Gastroenterologists know about the functions and diseases of the stomach, intestines, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder.

You may see a gastroenterologist if you’ve had ongoing belly troubles including pain, nausea, or bowel issues.

Gastroenterologists diagnose and treat digestive disorders including liver disease, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and cancers. Typically, the gastroenterologist starts by learning about your symptoms and doing an exam to find out if they can see, hear, or feel anything unusual.

The diagnostic process helps the gastroenterologist to determine what might be causing your symptoms. Once they have a diagnosis, they determine your treatment. You may need medication, surgery, or a referral to another specialist.

Gastroenterologists are internists, meaning that they specialize in what’s going on inside the body. Like other physicians, gastroenterologists start their professional education with medical school. They then go on to residency and fellowship training.

To be a board certified gastroenterologist, the requirements include:

  • Three years of an internal medicine residency
  • Board certification in internal medicine 
  • 36 months of fellowship training, including at least 18 months of clinical training
  • Successful completion of the Gastroenterology Certification Exam

Board certification isn’t required for a gastroenterologist to practice, but it's an important credential to look for. It proves that the doctor has expertise and training in the specialty.

Some gastroenterologists may choose to complete an additional year of training in research or patient care. That year can include subspecialty training in areas like pediatric gastroenterology (care for children’s digestion) or transplant hepatology (care of people who may need liver transplants).

A gastroenterologist has the expertise to diagnose and treat conditions that affect digestion. There are many reasons why you might see a gastroenterologist:

Problems with Bowel Movements

Constipation and diarrhea affect almost everyone occasionally. However, if your bowel problems don’t resolve after a couple of days, you may need to see a doctor. A gastroenterologist can determine whether you need treatment to resolve your diarrhea or constipation.

Recurrent or Severe Abdominal Pain

Bellyaches are common, but sometimes they signal the need for a doctor’s care. If your abdominal pain lasts for more than a few days, comes back frequently, or is accompanied by nausea or bowel difficulties, a gastroenterologist might help you get to the root of the issue. Extremely severe pain, however, is a reason to visit the ER.

There are many different causes of belly pain, from a viral infection to something more serious like appendicitis.

Frequent Heartburn

Heartburn happens when stomach acid creeps up into your esophagus. It’s usually caused by a problem with the lower esophageal sphincter, the valve that’s supposed to keep food in your stomach.

Heartburn causes pain in the chest, difficulty swallowing, and a hot or acidic taste in the back of the throat. People tend to manage occasional heartburn at home, but frequent symptoms can indicate a chronic condition like Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease or even cancer. A gastroenterologist can help you figure it out and get treatment.

Check for Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer affects an estimated 148,000 people a year. Regular screening by a gastroenterologist may identify the disease in its earlier stages when treatment is more effective. The American Cancer Society recommends that people get screened regularly starting at age 45.

You might visit a gastroenterologist at a hospital, clinic, or private office. Depending on your insurance, you might need a referral from your primary care physician.

The gastroenterologist will ask you about your symptoms and perform a physical exam. This usually involves you lying down on the table and the doctor pressing down on the outside of your belly. They’ll feel for anything unusual, ask you if it hurts, and listen for abnormal sounds.

A gastroenterologist may send you for further tests ordiagnostic procedures like a colonoscopy or upper endoscopy, both of which use small cameras to let the doctor view your digestive tract. After making a diagnosis, the doctor will discuss your treatment options.

Some people see a gastroenterologist once or a few times when they have an acute (sudden) issue. Others may have recurring appointments to manage chronic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.