How to Find the Best Doctor for Ulcerative Colitis

Tips to Help You Get the Best Care

Ulcerative colitis is one form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). It is a chronic, lifelong, incurable condition that causes inflammation in the colon.

This leads to the formation of ulcers in the lining of the large intestine that can bleed. It can also cause complications in other parts of the body and is associated with other autoimmune conditions. Ulcerative colitis may cause symptoms such as diarrhea, bloody stools, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. 

A gastroenterologist, a specialist in diseases and conditions of the digestive system, will be the specialist most often needed to diagnose and treat ulcerative colitis. However, an important part of being a patient living with IBD is in getting a referral to a specialist and then following up as needed.

It’s important to learn how to be an empowered patient and to understand as much as possible about ulcerative colitis and how it is treated.

A physician explains test results to a woman in her office.

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Types of Ulcerative Colitis Specialists

Ulcerative colitis is challenging to diagnose and treat. A gastroenterologist will be the main point of contact for care and treatment.

Some of the signs that a gastroenterologist will look for and treat include bloody diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, mucus in the stool, and the need to use a bathroom urgently (tenesmus). 

IBD affects the whole person. Ulcerative colitis can contribute to problems in the eyes, skin, liver, and joints.

Therefore, other specialists might also be needed to ensure that every symptom is being managed. This can include a primary care provider (an internist, a doctor who treats adults), an ophthalmologist, a mental health professional, a dermatologist, a rheumatologist, an enterostomal therapy (ET) nurse, and other specialists as needed.  

Getting a Referral

Patients who suspect they have ulcerative colitis or have been diagnosed with it will want to get a referral to a gastroenterologist. The first step will be in asking your primary care physician for the name and contact information of a gastroenterologist.

Some people who live with ulcerative colitis may be managed day-to-day by a primary care physician. However, it is important to see a gastroenterologist (who specializes in the digestive tract) to get the correct diagnosis and to get the treatment plan in place.

A referral may be seamless and care transferred over easily. However, a referral could also require you to contact your insurance company and transporting records between doctors or between healthcare systems that are not connected. 

Finding the Best Team

Most people who live with IBD will have a team of physicians that they are working with. You will want to get referrals or reach out to specialists as needed, or on a yearly basis for a check in. 

Beyond asking a primary care physician and family or friends for recommendations, patients can also seek out nonprofit patient advocacy groups and professional physician societies to find a list of specialists. Patients will want to find a physician that has IBD or ulcerative colitis as their specialties of interest in order to get more targeted care. 

Doctor Credentials

Specialist physicians go through a long education process. Gastroenterologists are internal medicine physicians who go on to study and specialize in the digestive system.

They are also board certified, meaning that gastroenterologists have demonstrated ability in diagnosing and treating diseases of the digestive organs, which includes the esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine, as well as related organs—the liver, pancreas, and gallbladder. 

Professional gastroenterology societies such as the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) and the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG) will have lists of physician members available for patients to access.

Online Resources

There are several places online to look for an ulcerative colitis doctor, including: 

Hospitals Near You

Hospitals throughout the United States specialize in the treatment of IBD and ulcerative colitis. Patients who are able to access a specialist center may find these centers are a good option for a consultation or for ongoing care. 

Some specialty centers include:

Taking Advantage of Telehealth

In some cases, telehealth may be a way to manage some aspects of IBD. Appointments with specialists that are far away may be available via telehealth. Asking a new physician or an IBD center about their telehealth options may open up some ways for seeking care more frequently or even with less expense and less travel time.

Getting a Second Opinion

Patients have choices when it comes to their care team. You will want a team you can trust and can rely on. The first doctor or healthcare professional a patient meets with might not be the right one. Getting a second opinion may be necessary to find the right fit.

Second opinions might be needed to confirm a diagnosis, to change medications or manage complications, or before having surgery.

Insurance

For those who have commercial insurance, working with physicians within your plan's network may lower costs. Contact your insurance carrier for a list of providers within your network.

Summary

People who live with ulcerative colitis need to work closely with their gastroenterologist and their other healthcare team members. Inflammatory bowel diseases are not easy to diagnose or treat, which is why some physicians specialize in the treatment of Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis.

A Word From Verywell

Ulcerative colitis is a lifelong condition. It’s important to have a care team that is knowledgeable, responsive, and provides a high quality of care. Insurance coverage and cost can be major barriers to accessing the right care. Asking about all the available options, including telehealth. It can make a difference in seeing an ulcerative colitis specialist who is informed about all the latest in care.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you get a referral to see a gastrointestinal specialist?

    A primary care provider, whether a family doctor or an internist, can provide you with a referral to see a gastroenterologist. Check with your insurance carrier to see if a referral is necessary and what the steps are. This can help avoid unnecessary out-of-pocket costs. Some insurance plans will not require a referral and patients will be able to see a doctor on their own.

  • What types of tests do digestive doctors perform?

    Gastroenterologists may perform a number of tests in order to determine the cause of problems in the stomach, intestines, or other digestive organs. Some of these include:


    • Anorectal manometry: Measures the muscle tone in your anus and rectum
    • Capsule endoscopy: A tiny camera in a swallowed pill transmits images of your digestive system
    • Colonoscopy: A flexible tube with a camera inserted through the anus to look at your colon
    • Electrogastrography: Electrodes placed on the skin to measure the electrical and muscle activity of the stomach
    • Endoscopic ultrasound: A tube with a camera and ultrasound probe inserted through the mouth or anus to provide images of the digestive tract
    • Endoscopy: A thin flexible tube with a camera inserted through the mouth or an incision to provide images
    • Enteroscopy: A type of endoscopy using a push enteroscope to visualize the first part of the small intestine
    • Esophageal 24-hour pH study: Measures acid and non-acid reflux in your esophagus via a catheter placed through your nose and down your throat
    • Esophageal manometry: A pressure-sensitive tube inserted through your nose and down your throat to measure the movement and function of your esophagus
    • Esophagogastroduodenoscopy: A fiber-optic endoscope with a camera inserted through your mouth to take images of the upper digestive tract
    • Gastroscopy: An endoscope used to look at the stomach and the first part of the small intestine
    • Sigmoidoscopy: A flexible viewing tube (sigmoidoscopy) inserted through the anus to view the last third of the colon
  • Are there hospitals that specialize in ulcerative colitis?

    Some hospitals have specialty centers that specialize in the treatment of IBD, including ulcerative colitis. These centers are located throughout the country.

    For people who are not local to an IBD center, traveling to one for a consultation may be helpful. Asking about telehealth appointments is also a way to see a specialist for IBD who is not local.

  • What’s the newest treatment for ulcerative colitis?

    New drugs are being tested and approved almost yearly. For example, Zeposia (ozanimod) was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2021 for treatment of moderate to severe active ulcerative colitis in adults. The FDA approved Xeljanz (tofacitinib) for that purpose in May 2018.

    Talk with your physician about the best options and ask about what new and forthcoming treatments.

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