Dr. Melissa Palmer: Which Doctors Treat Liver Disease?

palmer Dr. Melissa Palmer: Which Doctors Treat Liver Disease? Photo

Dr. Melissa Palmer (hepb.org)

There are many different kinds of doctors who evaluate and treat people with liver disorders. First, there is the family physician or internist. These doctors are also referred to as primary care physicians (PCPs). They are often the first ones to discover that something is wrong with the liver. From there, the patient is customarily referred to a specialist—either a gastroenterologist, hepatologist, or infectious disease specialist—for further evaluation and treatment. This specialist may be in a practice located at an academic institution or in a private practice located in a community setting. The difference between the various types of doctors a patient with liver disease encounters may sometimes be confusing. Hopefully, this section will clarify these differences in order to eliminate any future confusion.

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The Medical Doctor (MD)

Medical Doctors (MDs) are physicians who have successfully completed four years of medical school training. After graduating from medical school, these doctors must complete a minimum of one additional year of training in a hospital in what is known as an internship. They must then pass a state-licensing exam in order to practice medicine in that state. After obtaining their license, they have the right to practice medicine in that state. However, many doctors choose to continue their training in a hospital by undergoing a residency—typically an additional two years.

After completing their residency, these doctors must take an exam in order to become board certified in a specialty, such as family medicine or internal medicine. Doctors may practice medicine whether or not they pass this exam.  Doctors who become family doctors or internists have general knowledge in all areas of medicine including the heart, lungs, kidneys, stomach, intestines, and liver. At this time, a doctor may decide to undergo additional specialty training, known as a fellowship, in a specific area of internal medicine, such as gastroenterology, hepatology, or infectious diseases, in order to become an expert in these areas.

The Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)

Doctors of osteopathy (DOs) are commonly referred to as osteopaths. These are doctors who graduated from a four-year osteopathic school. They must also complete a one-year internship in a hospital in order to be eligible to obtain a license to practice medicine. Osteopaths can also choose to undergo an additional two-year residency, and may thereafter undergo specialty training in a specific area of medicine.

Osteopaths tend to focus on treating “the body as a whole,” particularly on the body’s ability to heal itself. Osteopaths typically center their treatment on the musculoskeletal system, the muscles and bones, often using techniques such as bone manipulation and a form of massage.

The Family Physician

A family physician is a doctor—either an MD or a DO—who has been trained to prevent, diagnose, and treat medical conditions in people of all ages. The family physician takes care of the general health of the patient and his entire family. Their training is not limited to internal medicine, but includes some training in psychiatry, obstetrics, gynecology, and surgery. These are the “Marcus Welby” doctors, seemingly able to handle almost any general problem.

There is a separate board certification examination specifically for family practitioners. This is known as the family practice boards. Specializing in family practice medicine requires an additional three years’ training beyond medical school. The amount of exposure to, and degree of expertise in liver disease varies among family practitioners. However, family physicians have not undergone additional specialized training in liver disease.

The Internist

An internist is a doctor—an MD or a DO—who is trained to prevent, diagnose, and treat medical conditions in adolescents and adults, including the elderly. Internists have received some basic training in subspecialty areas of internal medicine, including gastroenterology, hepatology, and infectious diseases. Internists are trained to treat both straightforward and complex problems of the internal organs. They are also trained in emergency medicine and critical care medicine. There is a separate board certification examination specifically for internists. It is known as the internal medicine boards. Specializing in internal medicine requires an additional three years’ training beyond medical school.

The amount of exposure to, and degree of expertise in liver disease varies among internists. Internists have the option of continuing their training in a subspecialty of internal medicine. This requires applying for, and being accepted into, a fellowship in the subspecialty of their choice. gastroenterology, hepatology, and infectious diseases are among the many subspecialties of internal medicine.

The Gastroenterologist

A gastroenterologist is an internist who has completed specialty training in the treatment of digestive disorders. Digestive disorders include disorders of the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestines, pancreas, gallbladder, and liver. In order to become board certified in gastroenterology, the doctor must first become board certified in internal medicine. In order to become eligible to even take the examination for board certification in gastroenterology, a gastrointestinal (GI) fellowship lasting an additional two to three years beyond an internal medicine residency must be completed.

During the course of their two to three years of training in gastroenterology, some gastroenterologists have little exposure to patients with liver disease. On the other hand, some gastroenterologists have a great deal of exposure to patients with liver disease during the course of their gastroenterology specialty training. Thus, the level of experience and expertise among gastroenterologists in diagnosing and treating liver disease varies greatly. It is important for the patient to determine the gastroenterologist’s level of expertise in liver disease prior to establishing a long-term medical relationship with this type of doctor.

The Hepatologist

A hepatologist is the most experienced and qualified type of doctor to treat people with liver disease. Since there is currently no separate board certification examination in the field of hepatology, there is no official definition of a hepatologist. However, there are specialized training programs for doctors who are focused solely on liver disease. These are known as hepatology fellowships and typically last from one to two years. Over the course of a hepatology fellowship, a doctor receives comprehensive training in the diagnosis and treatment of liver disease. This specialty training typically includes extensive exposure to all liver diseases, including those that are rare and infrequently seen. This intense training in liver disease is rarely matched in a gastroenterology fellowship.

A physician who successfully completes a hepatology fellowship is considered a hepatologist. Most hepatologists, although not all, are also gastroenterologists. These doctors have successfully completed both a hepatology and a gastroenterology fellowship. Occasionally, gastroenterologists who have not completed a fellowship in hepatology nonetheless focus their medical practice primarily on the diagnosis and treatment of people with liver disease. While these physicians do not have a separate diploma in the field of liver disease, they may also be considered hepatologists.

For many reasons, it is to the patient’s advantage to choose a hepatologist to treat his liver disease. The patient can be virtually assured that the hepatologist will have substantial experience in the diagnosis and treatment of the full range of liver diseases. Furthermore, hepatologists are likely to be the first to learn about the most up-to-date therapies—both FDA-approved and experimental—and to incorporate them into their practices. However, whether someone chooses to see a gastroenterologist or a hepatologist, it is important to find a doctor who is willing to work with him as an equal partner in the healing process.

Infectious Disease Specialists

An infectious disease specialist is an internist who has completed a specialty fellowship in infectious diseases of all types. Many infectious disease specialists treat people with liver disease caused by infectious – such as hepatitis B and C (both of which are caused by viruses). During the course of their two years of training in infectious diseases, some infectious disease specialists have little exposure to patients with viral hepatitis. On the other hand, some infectious disease specialists receive a great deal of exposure to patients with viral hepatitis during the course of their specialty training. Thus, the level of expertise among infectious disease specialists in diagnosing and treating viral hepatitis varies greatly. It is important for the patient to determine the infectious disease specialist’s level of expertise in treating hepatitis B or C prior to establishing a long-term medical relationship with this type of doctor.  It should be stressed that infectious disease doctors have no special expertise treating liver diseases that are not caused by infections – such as alcoholic liver disease or autoimmune hepatitis.

All contents of this article are Copyright © Melissa Palmer, MD

Dr. Palmer is an internationally renowned hepatologist who has been practicing medicine since 1985. She maintains the largest private medical practice devoted to liver disease in the United States. Dr. Palmer was trained in hepatology (as well as medical school) at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. She lectures frequently on liver disease-related topics to her medical peers and to the general public. She has appeared on television many times and is often quoted in magazines and newspapers. Dr. Palmer is a board member of the New York chapter of the American Liver Foundation, and she sits on the nutrition subcommittee of the national chapter of the American Liver Foundation, the advisory board of the Latino Organization for Liver Awareness (LOLA) and the Primary Biliary Cirrhosis Organization (PBCers).

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