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Hepatology focuses on the health and diseases of the pancreas, biliary tract and liver. It is an emerging field of medicine that grew out of gastroenterology and is not yet recognized throughout the world.

What is hepatology?

The liver is the primary focus of hepatologic care, as problems with the biliary tract and pancreas are usually connected to issues with it. The liver is vital to almost all physiological processes in the body, performing over 500 chemical functions. Although the liver is one of the few vital organs that can actually heal itself over time, a variety of problems can affect it.

An array of hereditary diseases can also target liver function. Enzyme deficiencies, for example, can be debilitating to a person's general health. By and large, many of the liver issues that hepatologists deal with are related to alcoholism. The most common disease affecting alcoholics, cirrhosis, enlarges the liver and inhibits its ability to cleanse the body of toxins.

Hepatologists diagnose and treat many other disorders, symptoms and diseases, including various forms of hepatitis, jaundice, liver failure, pancreatic cancer, Gilbert's syndrome, Wilson disease, hemochromatosis and gallstones. Viruses, bacterial infections, cancer and forms of trauma can have a debilitating effect on the liver, pancreas or biliary tract and merit the attention of a trained professional.

Hepatologist education and training

The education and training of hepatologists is similar to that of any other doctor specializing in internal medicine. Once candidates have obtained a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree, hopefuls must complete a residency in gastroenterology. Residency usually lasts one year, and recent medical school graduates have the opportunity to practice medicine under the supervision of fully licensed physicians. During this period, residents gain medical experience through hands-on training with real patients, a necessary part of becoming a competent doctor in any field.

After completing their residency, physicians must then complete a fellowship that specializes in hepatologic care. This fellowship can last up to three years, and it gives physicians the necessary experience and skills to work competently within their specialty.

Once the fellowship is complete, physicians must pass the board certification examination in gastroenterology to become fully licensed in the field. There is not a specific examination in hepatology in the United States, but the necessary subjects are inclusive within the gastroenterology board exam.

Although it is a long and difficult road to become a hepatologist, such in-depth training is necessary to make sure that physicians have the clinical judgment and skills necessary to deliver exceptional medical care. 

Choosing a hepatologist

If you are suffering from what you believe is a liver condition, it is not always necessary to seek a hepatologist's care. Many problems can be treated adequately by a general internist. If an internist determines that your condition is complex enough to merit the attention of an experienced hepatologist, a referral to such a specialist is usually provided.

Cases where patients may need hepatologic care include cirrhosis, hepatitis, liver disease and cancer. The aid of a hepatologist also may be required in liver transplants or managing the enzyme levels within the liver with medication.

In order to find the right hepatologist for you, you may wish to get a suggestion from your referring physician. Check your insurance company's directory and then locate and verify specialists in your area using Angie's List.