Understanding Medical Specialties
Pulmonologist? Rheumatologist?

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"Otolaryngologist." it's hard to pronounce. And, unless you know some Latin, the word means nothing to you. Unlike most medical specialty titles, though, this one has a well-known and easy-to-understand acronym, "ENT," which is an ear, nose, and throat doctor. Most other specialists don't have such abbreviations. You might be left guessing what these doctors do.

Usually, a medical specialist focuses on one organ or body system. He or she has undergone additional training after medical school unique to his or her field.

Here's a list of specialists who can help you navigate the world of medical specialization. Use it if your primary doctor refers you to a specialist or to request a referral yourself.

Cardiologists: Treat heart and blood vessel conditions. These include abnormal heart rhythms, heart attacks, and congestive heart failure. They also help people prevent heart-related illnesses.

Dermatologists: Treat skin disorders, such as rashes, moles, skin cancer, and skin allergies. They also address such concerns as hair loss, acne, birthmarks, scars, and aging skin.

Endocrinologists: Specialize in diabetes, thyroid disease, pituitary disease, and other disorders related to the endocrine glands.

Gastroenterologists: Diagnose and treat digestive system diseases, including esophagus, stomach, or intestinal problems.

Hematologists: Treat people with blood diseases, such as anemia, sickle-cell disease, hemophilia, and other diseases of the bone marrow, spleen, and lymph glands.

Nephrologists: Specialize in kidney problems. They also treat fluid or mineral imbalances in the body.

Neurologists: Handle various conditions of the nervous system. These include impaired nerve function and diseases of the brain or spinal cord.

Obstetricians/gynecologists: Specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the female reproductive tract. They also take care of women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Oncologists: Diagnose and treat cancer. Treatment often includes chemotherapy. They also work closely with other doctors to coordinate care for people with cancer.

Ophthalmologists: Focus on diagnosing and treating disorders of the eye. They perform surgery on the eye and prescribe medication, glasses, and contact lenses.

Orthopedists: Work with people who have arthritis or other musculoskeletal problems, such as fractures, tendon injuries, and dislocations. Treatments include cast immobilization, medication, surgery, and physical therapy.

Otolaryngologists: Diagnose and treat problems of the ear, nose, and throat.

Primary care specialists: Family physicians, general internists (primary care of adults), and pediatricians (primary care of children) focus on the general care of the patient. "Primary care" is considered a specialty unto itself, requiring specialized knowledge on disease prevention, wellness, substance abuse, and mental health. Primary care doctors are often the first point-of-contact for your health care needs. They see the same people often over the span of a lifetime. They treat a wide variety of acute and chronic conditions and coordinate care with specialists.

Psychiatrists: Treat mental, addictive, and emotional disorders. They also help people prevent these problems. They address the physical, social, and mental aspects of illnesses. Unlike some mental-health professionals, psychiatrists may prescribe medications.

Pulmonologists: Treat diseases of the lungs and airways. These include lung cancer, pneumonia, asthma, emphysema, and some sleep disorders.

Rheumatologists: Treat problems with joints, muscles, bones, and tendons. These include arthritis and lupus.

Urologists: Treat disorders (such as cancer) of the male and female urinary systems, as well as the male reproductive tract.

Remember to contact your health plan before you see a specialist. Some plans require a referral from your primary physician.

By Louis Neipris, MD, Staff Writer
Created on 03/15/2007
Updated on 04/25/2011
  • Torpy JM. Medical Specialties. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2007;298(9):1120.
  • American Board of Medical Specialties. What's so special about specialties?
  • United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Physicians and surgeons.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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