If your stomach is upset, or you're constipated, or for some reason you can't keep your food down, you may be referred to a gastroenterologist.
Gastroenterologists take care of problems related to our digestive systems. So if your primary care doctor refers you to a gastroenterologist for stomach upset, that makes sense.
If you have migraines, or a backache, or a tingling feeling in your hands or feet, you may be referred to a neurologist. A neurologist is trained to diagnose and care for problems with the head, neck, back, balance, reflexes and other problems including memory and cognitive abilities.
Both gastroenterologists and neurologists are specialists that focus on those specific diseases and body systems rather than more general medical problems like your primary care doctors does. The gastroenterologist or neurologist may pull out all the stops in trying to diagnose you. She will gather evidence in a variety of ways by observing you and your symptoms, running tests and studying your medical history. In the perfect world, she will figure out exactly what's wrong with your body, based on her specialized knowledge.
But sometimes it's not that easy. Sometimes a specialist may still have a problem determining your true diagnosis. Sometimes our symptoms are felt in one part of our bodies, or in one fashion, but they aren't really reflective of the right body system or an easily identifiable medical diagnosis.
For example: headaches can be caused not just by neurological problems, but by sinus problems, infections, high blood pressure, dental problems, eye diseases, arthritis – hundreds of causes. Those problems are treated by ophthalmologists, endocrinologists, rheumatologists, dentists and other specialists - not neurologists.
Stomach problems may have other causes than those related to your digestion, too. From liver problems to female problems to thyroid diseases, rather than getting a diagnosis from a gastroenterologist, you may need to see a gynecologist, urologist or an endocrinologist to get the right answers for you.
If you have had trouble getting a correct diagnosis, consider the possibility that you have been seeing the wrong kind of specialist. In fact, that specialist’s knowledge of his specialty area may have come at the expense of learning about more general medicine that would even suggest to her the right specialist for you. She may not have enough medical knowledge to consider that your problem is based in another body system that he knows far less about. Further, as long as she can keep you within her practice, even if it's the wrong one, she'll keep being reimbursed when you show up, despite the fact that you aren't getting any better.
How can you know who else might be able to help you? Return to your primary care physician who can be your specialist coordinator. Make sure your PCP has copies of the records for the specialist you’ve already seen. Then ask what other body system could cause your symptoms, and ask to be referred to a specialist who takes care of that alternative body system.
Savvy patients know that seeking information from other kinds of specialists may be the ticket to getting the right diagnosis.
Edited by Alison Stanton