What is a nephrologist, otolaryngologist or physiatrist? You’re not the only one who’s stumped. If you ever find yourself confused and relying on Google to get a description of a specialist you need to see, read on. Doctors specialize—and sub-specialize—in certain areas of the body and in treating specific conditions. Depending on your health plan, you might not even need a referral from your primary care doctor to see a specialist.
If you find some of these specialty names hard to decode (and pronounce), it’s not surprising—often medical terms are derived from Greek and Latin. “Patients should not feel embarrassed if they don't know the names of all of the different medical specialties and subspecialties or even how to pronounce them,” says Michael Lerner, MD, a Yale Medicine laryngologist (translation: voice and swallowing doctor).
He explains that when doctors specialize, it means they have completed several additional years of specialized training after finishing up their general medicine training.
“Specialists are trained to diagnose and treat the more complex and sometimes more nuanced problems in medicine,” says Dr. Lerner. “While not everyone needs to see a specialist, it's important to know that they are available for consultation if you need them.”
Meet 15 specialists you might not know, and learn some interesting facts about what these doctors can do for you, too:
Also known as an anatomic pathologist, these physicians specialize in diagnosing infections and cancers, as well as examining Pap smears for women’s health. This is important because pathology slides require interpretation; the differences between healthy and diseased tissue are sometimes very subtle. For example, says Angelique Levi, MD, director of Pathology outreach services for Yale Medicine, “This kind of pathologist could help resolve a discrepancy with a Pap smear result.” She adds that this is one example among many reasons why a Yale Medicine physician may seek input from a cytopathologist to guide clinical treatment for a patient.
These doctors have backgrounds in both pathology and dermatology—so it’s a good idea to request that your skin biopsy be sent to a dermatopathologist for review. “Dermatopathologists are trained to recognize every skin condition, whether inflammatory (rash) or neoplastic (tumor),” says dermatopathologist Jennifer McNiff, MD, medical director of Yale Medicine Dermatopathology.
She explains that Yale’s dermatopathologists work very closely together, giving patients the benefit of more than one specialist’s expertise. “Our team of dermatopathologists reviews complex or challenging cases together daily in a consensus conference at a multi-headed microscope,” Dr. McNiff says.
You may know that gastroenterologists treat issues involving the stomach, but did you know that these doctors also identify and treat conditions affecting the esophagus, as well as the small and large intestines (also known as the gastrointestinal tract) and the liver? Gastroenterologists diagnose and treat a wide range of conditions—from irritable bowel syndrome to Barrett’s esophagus to colorectal cancer. They also perform colonoscopies to detect polyps and intestinal diseases.
Age isn’t “just a number.” Advancing years affect every aspect of how the body functions, including digestion, brain function, how medications work, and more. Often working in collaboration with other specialists who treat specific conditions, a gerontologist is an expert in the field of aging—geriatrics—and all of the related cultural, cognitive and biological aspects of this process. Because they help patients and their families cope with age-related challenges, gerontologists will be in heavy demand in the coming years as the population ages.
This is a doctor who diagnoses and treats diseases associated with the gallbladder, pancreas and liver. They treat acute or chronic liver disease, ranging from fatty liver disease to cirrhosis to liver cancer. Both a hepatologist and a gastroenterologist can help diagnose and treat liver disease.
Chronic liver diseases are on the rise, as is liver cancer. "However, there is lot that can be done today if you have liver disease as many of these conditions are now treatable and also preventable," says Mario Strazzabosco, MD, a hepatologist who is also the deputy director of Yale Medicine's Liver Cancer Program. "Working in collaboration with your primary care physician, a hepatologist can help you preserve the health of your liver by identifying risk factors and counseling you on how to keep your liver healthy and happy."
"Interventional radiologists are experts at shutting down blood flow to body parts when it is not wanted," says Raj Ayyagari, MD, a Yale Medicine interventional radiologist. “When a patient has internal bleeding from trauma to a body part such as the liver, kidney, or spleen or a pelvic fracture, interventional radiology doctors perform embolization procedures that involve plugging up the bleeding vessels.” These doctors also can reopen blood vessels that have shut down abnormally due to narrowing of the arteries or blood clots to the legs or lungs, for example.
In addition, they embolize malignant tumors in the liver and kidneys, explains Kevin Kim, MD, director of Smilow Interventional Oncology, as well as benign overgrowths of organs like the prostate and uterus to shrink them back down to normal size. These doctors use X-rays, ultrasounds, MRIs and CT scanners to guide many procedures throughout the body—from head to toe.
Musculoskeletal oncology specialist
Within the area of orthopaedic surgery is a type of cancer doctor who treats bone and soft tissue tumors of the musculoskeletal system. At Yale Medicine, we also have on staff a pediatric musculoskeletal oncology specialist who treats children with these types of problems.
They specialize in evaluating and treating all aspects of kidney function and disease—from polycystic kidney disease to renal disease. Many health conditions can impact how the kidneys function, including diabetes, high blood pressure, frequent urinary tract infections and obstruction of the urinary tract.
A neuropsychologist is a clinical psychologist who specializes in assessing and managing the care of people who have had brain injuries or illnesses that affect their cognitive ability and behavior.
This doctor is different from an optometrist or optician because he or she has earned a medical degree and is trained to diagnose and treat eye diseases and perform eye surgery. Ophthalmologists also conduct routine eye exams; pediatric ophthalmologists specialize in treating infants and children with vision problems and eye diseases.
Oral & maxillofacial surgeon
This type of surgeon has completed specialized training to treat injuries, diseases and birth defects in both bone and soft tissues of the face, mouth and jaws. An oral and maxillofacial surgeon treats such problems as sleep apnea, for example, and performs revisions of disproportionate upper and lower jaws in children and adults. The latter procedure helps improve speaking, eating and chewing. It can also help alleviate temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) and sleep apnea.
You’ve probably heard them referred to by a more common name: ear, nose, throat doctors (or ENTs). Some of these doctors add on yet another specialty and become otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeons, which trains them in surgery of the ear, nose, throat, head and neck, and facial plastic surgery. Pediatric otolaryngologists treat children with these problems.
Physical medicine & rehabilitation (PM&R) physicians
Also known as physiatrists, these doctors have completed medical school as well as several years of additional training in the nonsurgical treatment of problems with muscles, joints and nerves. According to Leigh Hanke, MD, a Yale Medicine PM&R physician, these specialists take the whole person into account when diagnosing and treating a musculoskeletal problem. Conditions they treat include arthritis, back pain, neck pain, sports injuries, sciatica and carpal tunnel syndrome. A patient may see a PM&R physician as a first step in care or after consulting other specialists.
Usually trained as an internal medicine physician or pediatrician, this doctor has gone on to receive extra training in the diagnosis and treatment of autoimmune diseases, which can range from osteoarthritis to gout to lupus. These diseases usually affect the joints, muscles, or bones, but they can also interfere with the eyes, skin, and internal organs.
Specialists who treat female pelvic floor disorders—including urine leakage, vaginal bulging, or frequent urination—are often referred to as urogynecologists (other names include female urologist or female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgeons). These physicians are urologists or gynecologists who then completed further training in the treatment of non-cancerous conditions that affect female pelvic organs and the muscles and tissues that support those organs.
“Many women are not aware that there are doctors with specialized training in the surgical and non-surgical treatment of female pelvic floor disorders,” says urologist Leslie Rickey, MD, a female pelvic medicine and reconstructive surgeon who is also an associate professor of urology, obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine. “It is important for women to know that these conditions are not considered ‘normal’ or an inevitable part of aging and that successful treatments are available.”
Decoding the 'Alphabet Soup' of Medical Degrees
We’ve all seen the letters “MD” (doctor of medicine) or “RN” (registered nurse) on name tags at the hospital. But those aren’t the only medical degrees a physician or nurse can earn. Here, we break down the differences between the widely recognizable medical degrees, and others that are equivalent or involve special training.
- DO: This degree translates to doctor of osteopathic medicine. These doctors have attended an osteopathic school of medicine instead of a traditional medical school, which is where a majority of physicians get their training. Both kinds of doctors complete a residency program, but they take different licensing exams.
- MBBCh & MBBS: These are MD-equivalent degrees given by medical schools that follow the United Kingdom medical education system. They are derived from Latin. For example, MBBCh literally translates as: Medicinae Baccalaureus, Baccalaureus Chirurgiae.
- MPH: Some doctors acquire a master of public health degree in addition to their medical degree which helps them understand how public health policy affects patients and the communities in which they live.
- PhD: Doctor of philosophy. Though it has "doctor" in the title, a doctorate degree does nothing to do with medicine. However, some physicians choose to earn a PhD in a particular subject that may be related (or not) to medicine.
- CNP/CPNP: Certified nurse practitioner or certified pediatric nurse practitioner
- CNM: Certified nurse midwife
For help finding a specialist, call 1-877-YALEMDS.