What Is the Role of a Hepatologist?

Tips on Finding Qualified Specialists Trained in Liver Disease

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A hepatologist is a specialist who diagnoses and treats disorders of the liver, pancreas, gallbladder, and biliary tree. It is considered a sub-specialty of gastroenterology, which studies the digestive systems as a whole.​

Hepatitis is one of the primary reasons for seeking specialist advice from a certified hepatologist, although patients are frequently referred for other causes, including:

  • Pancreatitis
  • Liver cancers
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis
  • A drug overdose in which the liver is affected (e.g., paracetamol overdose)

While there is no separate board certification for a hepatologist, a two-year fellowship is typically completed with a focus on liver diseases. While most hepatologists are board-certified gastroenterologists, others are simply physicians who have successfully completed gastroenterology and hepatology fellowships.

Those who are certified as gastroenterologists receive special recognition by way of the suffix FACG (Fellowship of the American College of Gastroenterology) following their names.

Choosing a Hepatologist or Gastroenterologist

If you have a disease like hepatitis C, there is really no inherent reason why a hepatologist would be a better option for you than a gastroenterologist. While a hepatologist might have greater access to up-to-date treatment options (including experimental therapies), a gastroenterologist experienced and practiced in hepatitis C would likely be able to treat you just as well.

Once referrals are received, selection should be based on your ability to work cooperatively with whichever doctor you choose. This includes the full and honest exchange of information between you and the doctor, and the ability to work together with your doctor as a partnership in your care. 

It is also not uncommon to seek advice from other specialists, particularly if you are co-infected with hepatitis C and HIV. Because there is such a high rate of co-infection—as high as 20% or more in some countries—many HIV specialists today are well trained in hepatitis C therapies. In some cases, they may even be able to oversee the treatment of both diseases (although less likely to deal with the complications of liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma).

By contrast, hepatologists and gastroenterologists generally do not have the specialist acumen to treat or manage HIV.

When meeting with a potential specialist, there are a number questions you should ask to better ascertain the skills and qualities of that physician. Among them:

  • What are your specific board certifications?
  • How large of a hepatitis C practice do you have?
  • How far in advance do I need to make appointments?
  • How long does it generally take to return phone calls?
  • What are your policies regarding phone consultations or prescription renewals?
  • Does your practice require payment up front, or will your accept delayed payment from my insurance company?
  • Do you accept Medicaid?

You can also access online healthcare resource to provide you background information about the doctor, as well as a database of patient and professional reviews. These include:

  • CertificationMatters.org developed by the American Board of Medical Specialities, which allows users to confirm the board certification of over 800,000 physicians in the U.S.
  • Healthgrades.com, the first comprehensive physician rating database, which enables users to search doctors by location/specialty; view their credentials, sanctions, and malpractice suits; and review doctors by both quality and satisfaction.
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