This post is part of our Health Literacy Week collection. Vitals has put together articles to help you make the right decisions about your health care.
With names like gastroenterologist and pulmonologist, no wonder it’s sometimes hard to tell which doctor to go to for what issue or question. Below is a listing of some common primary care physicians and specialists you may encounter. We explain what these terms mean and the most important things patients should know.
Primary Care Physicians
Internist – A primary care physician that only treats adult diseases, particularly those involving internal organs. Must undergo specialized training in diagnostic techniques, as well as prevention and treatment of adult diseases.
Gynecologist – Surgical specialty concerned with the female reproductive system. Often combined with training in obstetrics (pregnancy and childbirth). Treats infections of both internal and external organs, sexually transmitted diseases, and also deals with menstrual and menopausal cycles, pre- and post-natal care and other specialized areas. May be listed as a primary care physician with some health plans.
Obstetrician – Surgical specialty involving women, pregnancy and childbirth. Often combined with training in gynecology, which deals with the female reproductive system at large and is also a surgical specialty.
Pediatrician – A physician who specializes in the care of infants, children and adolescents. May help coordinate a child’s care as well as treat a child for illness. Subspecialties include cardiology, oncology, adolescent medicine and neonatology, to name a few.
Endocrinologist – Specializes in issues that affect the endocrine system, which produces the body’s hormones. Treats a variety of conditions, including diabetes, metabolic syndromes and infertility.
Gastroenterologist – Subspecialty of internal medicine that deals with treating diseases and disorders of the digestive system, including organs and digestive tract. Includes mouth, stomach, digestive tracts and other internal/external organs. Common reasons to see a gastroenterologist include ulcers, Crohn’s disease and colonoscopies.
General Surgeon – A doctor who performs general operations. Areas of the body treated by general surgery include the stomach, liver, intestines, appendix, breasts, thyroid gland, salivary glands, some arteries and veins and the skin. Other areas like the brain, heart, eyes and feet, require specialized surgical care.
Geriatrician – A physician who specializes in care of the elderly. Promotes health and treats diseases and disabilities in older adults.
Hematologist – Subspecialty of internal medicine that is concerned with the blood and the organs that produce blood cells, platelets, hemoglobin and proteins. Treats blood disorders and diseases of blood, such as anemia and sickle cell disease. Often combines specialty with oncology to address cancers of the blood and lymphatic system.
Hepatologist – A doctor who specializes in the treatment of diseases of the liver, gallbladder, biliary tree and pancreas. Usually deals with diseases and complications related to viral hepatitis and alcohol.
Hospitalist – A physician who treats patients in a hospital setting. Manages and reports the conditions of patients who are treated in the hospital to their primary care physician.
Medical Geneticist – Specializes in diagnosing and treating patients with genetically-linked diseases. Provides genetic counseling, therapeutic treatment and prevention of genetic birth defects by diagnosing disorders during pregnancy.
Nephrologists – Subspecialty of internal and pediatric medicine that concentrates on the kidneys. May be consulted to treat hypertension, electrolyte imbalance and complications due to diabetes, as well as dialysis and transplant functions. Does not treat issues relating to the urinary system.
Neurological Surgeon – Concentrates on diseases of the brain, spinal cord, spinal column, peripheral nerves and nervous system. Deals with the surgical treatment of nervous system disorders.
Oncologist – Medical specialty relating to the treatment of cancer. Many subspecialties focus on specific cancers. These include: gynecological oncology (female reproductive system); hematological oncology (blood and lymph system); pediatric oncology (children); medical oncology (general treatment); radiation oncology (treatment of cancer using radiation); surgical oncology (treatment of cancer through surgery).
Ophthalmologist – Medical specialty dealing with eye and vision care. Specialized in the diagnosis and treatment of visual disorders and eye diseases. Prescribes vision services, including glasses and contact lenses.
Oral & Maxillofacial Surgeon – Concentrates on the mouth and supporting structures. Treats the anatomical area of the mouth, jaw, face, skull, as well as related structures. Usually qualified in dentistry and has undergone further surgical training.
Orthopedic Surgeon – Focuses on all aspects of heathcare related to the skeletal system and associated muscles, joints and ligaments. Treats disorders involving limbs, bones, muscles or joints. Specializes in bone conditions and performs joint replacement surgery.
Otolaryngologist – Specialty dealing with ear, nose, throat, head and neck disorders. Also referred to as ENT. Provides a variety of specialized and surgical care, including chronic ear infections, cancers of the head and throat, hearing loss, allergies and deviation of the septum. Subspecialties include facial reconstructive surgery, pediatrics, plastic surgery, neutron-otology (dealing with the ear), laryngology (dealing with the voice) and sleep medicine.
Pediatric Surgeon – A surgeon who specializes in the treatment of children. Deals with surgical problems that are different than those handled by adult general surgeons like the repair of birth defects, transplantation operations, serious injuries and all other surgical procedures for children.
Pathologist – Specializes in the examination of cells and tissues removed from the body. Diagnoses diseases by laboratory tests of tissues and cells under a microscope. Provides valuable information that helps doctors treat a variety of diseases. Determines whether a tumor is benign or cancerous.
Physiatrist – A rehabilitation physician who treats nerve, muscle and bone injuries that affect how you move. Goal is to decrease pain and enhance performance without surgery. Restores maximum function lost through injury, illness or disabling conditions. Subspecialties include pain medicine, pediatric rehabilitation, spinal cord injury medicine, neuromuscular medicine and sports medicine.
Plastic Surgeon – A doctor with advanced training in cosmetic surgery that can correct injuries or deformities or enhance physical traits. Specializes in reducing scarring or disfigurement that may occur as a result of accidents, birth defects, or treatment for diseases.
Psychologist – Specializes in treating mental and emotional disorders. Evaluates a person’s mental and physical health and can prescribe medications.
Pulmonologist – Concentrates on treating the lungs and respiratory system. Subspecialty of internal medicine that treats lung diseases, such as emphysema and asthma. Surgery of the respiratory system is usually performed by a cardiothoracic surgeon, who specializes in performing surgery within the chest.
Radiologist – Specializes in creating and interpreting pictures of areas inside the body. Diagnoses and treats based on readings of x-rays, ultrasounds, MRI scans and CT scans imaging.
Rheumatologist – Specializes in the treatment of diseases of the joints, muscles and bones. Deals with patients that suffer from rheumatic diseases, like arthritis, lyme disease and lupus. Rheumatic diseases are characterized by pain and inflammation in the joints and associated structures and muscle soreness and stiffness.
Urologist – Focuses on the urinary systems of males and females and the reproductive system of males. Deals with bladder and kidney infections, cysts and stones; male reproductive organs, including the prostate.