Question: Do I Need A Gastroenterologist?
When you first notice troublesome signs or symptoms in your digestive system, such as constipation, diarrhea, heartburn or abdominal pain, you might wonder if you should see your general practitioner, an internist or a digestive specialist (a gastroenterologist). Which doctor you decide to see at the start of your symptoms, as well as after you get a diagnosis, is going to vary based on a number of different factors.
When Your Digestive Symptoms Are NewIf you are experiencing digestive symptoms for the first time, your first step may be to get an appointment with a doctor you already have a relationship with, such as your family physician, primary-care physician or internist. Ideally, this is a physician with whom you already have a relationship and who is familiar with your medical history. Once you've described your new symptoms, your doctor can then complete a physical exam and determine what initial tests (if any) should be done in order to find out what may be causing the symptoms.
At this point, there will be some decisions to make based on the results of your physical exam, lab tests or imaging studies. If your doctor determines that your symptoms need the attention of a specialist, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist. Your primary care physician will be able to refer you to a gastroenterologist. If the diagnosis is a fairly common one, is easily treatable and/or is not likely to reoccur, you and your regular doctor may decide to continue working together without a gastroenterologist.
When You Have Already Been Diagnosed with a Digestive ConditionIn many cases, people who are diagnosed with a chronic digestive condition are under the long-term care of a gastroenterologist. If you are experiencing a recurrence or a flare-up of an existing condition, such as Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, or irritable bowel syndrome, you should contact the gastroenterologist who has been managing your treatment. Your gastroenterologist should be in contact with your other physicians, and will give them regular updates on your progress.
Routine Referrals For ScreeningsA primary care physician may also refer a patient to a gastroenterologist for routine tests, such as a colonoscopy to screen for colorectal cancer in people who are older than 50 years (or younger, when appropriate).
What About Insurance Coverage for Specialists?In the United States, most insurance carriers require a referral to a specialist. If you do not get a proper referral, your insurance company may not cover the costs associated with a visit to a specialist. In this case, you must first see your primary care physician (for women, this may include a gynecologist) and be referred to a gastroenterologist. Other insurance carriers do not require a referral, and you may make an appointment with a specialist on your own. Check with your insurance carrier (the phone number will be on the back of your insurance card) if you are unsure or don't know if you need a referral, as well as to find out if the doctor you want to see is on your plan.
In Canada, you must first see your general practitioner or another specialist and be referred to a gastroenterologist. If you try to make an appointment with a gastroenterologist without a referral, you may be unable to do so.
What If the Closest Gastroenterologist Is Hours Away?In some areas, there may not be a gastroenterologist close by. Seeing one on a regular basis may require a certain amount of travel. This can be a hardship, but it should be taken into consideration that a gastroenterologist has a significant amount of specialized training in digestive diseases and conditions. When the diagnosis is a chronic digestive disease that requires careful management, a gastroenterologist will have the experience needed to recommend a comprehensive treatment plan.
What Conditions Could Be Managed By a Gastroenterologist?A gastroenterologist is specially trained to manage diseases of the digestive tract from the esophagus to the anus. Some conditions that a gastroenterologist may treat include:
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Gallbladder disease
- Heartburn (gastroesophageal reflux)