What Does a Gastroenterologist Do?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on August 03, 2023
4 min read

Gastroenterology is the branch of medicine that focuses on the digestive tract and the gallbladder, liver, bile ducts, and pancreas. A gastroenterologist is a doctor that deals in those fields and is also referred to as a GI specialist or a GI doctor.

Gastroenterologists, sometimes called "gastros" for short,  are trained to diagnose and treat problems in your gastrointestinal (GI) tract and liver. These doctors also do routine procedures such as colonoscopies, which look at the inside of your colon. They get 5-6 years of specialized education after medical school. You will often see a gastro after a referral from your primary care doctor. 

There are several branches of gastroenterology. Within gastroenterology, a gastroenterologist handles the workings of the stomach and intestine, how nutrients are digested and absorbed into the body, waste removal from the system, and the function of the liver as a digestive organ. Conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and pancreatitis would fall under what a gastroenterologist covers.

Hepatology focuses on the liver, gallbladder, biliary tree, and pancreas. If you have a liver disease caused by medication, jaundice, or enzyme defects, or if you have blood tests that show you have liver disease, you may be referred to someone in hepatology. You may also deal with a hepatologist if you need a liver transplant. 

Proctology is the practice of treating the anus, colon, and rectum. A proctologist may do surgeries such as removing your gallbladder. They may also treat conditions such as anal fissures, gallstones, constipation, hemorrhoids, hernias, and Crohn's disease.

You might go to a gastroenterologist for health concerns with your:

  • Esophagus, the tube that connects your mouth to your stomach
  • Stomach
  • Belly
  • Small intestine
  • Colon
  • Rectum
  • Pancreas
  • Gallbladder
  • Bile ducts
  • Liver

Your primary care doctor may also refer you to a gastroenterologist if you have problems with:

  • Swallowing
  • Heartburn
  • Food coming back up after you swallow
  • Chronic or severe diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Rectal bleeding
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Nausea 

These could be minor health concerns or signs of a serious condition. Gastroenterologists have the tools and expertise to diagnose you correctly. A few of the diseases and conditions they manage include:

  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Hepatitis
  • Cancer of the esophagus
  • Colon polyps that may turn into cancer

You would also see a gastroenterologist to get a screening colonoscopy or other tests that look inside any part of your gastrointestinal tract.

Gastroenterologists have the tools and expertise to treat gastrointestinal diseases such as:

  • Celiac disease
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
  • Food allergies and intolerances
  • Diverticulitis
  • Appendicitis
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
  • Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO)
  • Hemorrhoids
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Colorectal polyps

They also treat pancreatic, biliary, and gallbladder diseases, such as:

  • Cholecystitis
  • Gallstones
  • Pancreatitis

And liver diseases, such as:

  • Viral hepatitis
  • Toxic hepatitis
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Cirrhosis

And they treat esophageal disorders, such as:

  • Esophagitis
  • A hard time swallowing
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Hiatal hernias

You may need a nonsurgical procedure when visiting a gastro. Some that they perform include: 

  • Endoscopy, where an instrument is used to look inside the body in areas such as the stomach or small intestines
  • Ultrasounds, to produce medical imaging using sound or other vibrations
  • Colonoscopies, where an instrument is inserted through the anus to examine the colon
  • Liver biopsy, to assess inflammation and fibrosis, or thickening, in the liver
  • Enteroscopy examination of your small intestine
  • Polypectomy, the removal of polyps during an endoscopy

Finding a doctor you can trust is important because you need to be able to be open and honest during your treatment. Especially with a gastroenterologist, where you may be talking about sensitive information, it's key to find someone you feel confident you can confide in. Ask your primary care doctor for referrals, but also turn to friends and family for recommendations. It is often easier to find someone through word of mouth than purely relying on internet reviews when possible. Your doctor knows you and your medical history and is a great place to start. It is also important to consider your health insurance if that is how you'll be paying. You'll want to find someone in your network. Your provider should have a portal where you can find local doctors who accept your policy.

Gastroenterologists specialize in treating your digestive tract and cover everything from irritable bowel syndrome to constipation to liver diseases. There are several branches of gastroenterology, and these doctors may do many nonsurgical procedures if you are referred to them for problems such as gas, bloating, belly pain, or rectal bleeding. It is important to find a doctor you can be candid with, so take your time finding the right fit to treat your condition. 

  • What would be treated by a gastroenterologist?

Gastroenterologists cover many conditions, some of which are listed above. They treat anything related to the digestive tract, from food intolerances to liver diseases. 

  • Why would someone need to see a gastroenterologist?

You may be referred to a gastroenterologist for many reasons, such as belly pains, gas, vomiting, certain conditions that concern your digestive tract, or to have a nonsurgical procedure such as an endoscopy. 

  • What does "gastroenterology" mean?

"Gastro" means stomach, "entero" means intestines, and "ology" means a branch of study, so "gastroenterology" means the study of the stomach and intestines.

  • What is the difference between gastroenterology and a gastroenterologist?

Gastroenterology is the branch of medicine, while a gastroenterologist is the doctor that practices that type of medicine