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What is Hepatology?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Hepatology is a branch of medicine focused on diseases of the pancreas, biliary tract, and liver. Historically, this field was viewed as a subset of gastroenterology. While hepatology is not yet a recognized medical specialty in many regions of the world, doctors can choose to focus exclusively on hepatology topics and a specialist in this field is known as a hepatologist. Many hepatologists work in urban areas where there is a demand for medical specialists, although some rural areas furnish ample patients who could benefit from the attention of a hepatologist.

The liver is often the focal point of hepatology, because it is a critical organ and a surprisingly large number of things can happen to it. Hepatologists deal with genetic conditions involving the liver, such as enzyme deficiencies which inhibit liver function, and they also handle topics like damage to the liver, pancreas, or biliary tract caused by viruses, alcohol abuse, obstructions, bacterial infection, cancers, internal bleeding, trauma, and so forth.

Like other medical specialists, a hepatologist generally only sees patients when they are referred. Patients are referred to a specialist in hepatology when their primary care providers believe that they have a problem which could use the attention of a specialist. This may occur when someone exhibits symptoms such as jaundice, ascites, or viral hepatitis in the blood, or when a doctor has good reason to suspect that a patient may be suffering from alcoholism.

A hepatologist can work as part of a medical care team to provide treatment to a patient. For example, someone with a tropical bacterial infection which involves the liver could benefit from the services of a specialist in hepatology as well as a microbiologist. Hepatologists also work with surgeons to coordinate surgical procedures such as liver transplants, oncologists to treat cancers, and other medical care providers as needed. Hepatologists may work out of a hospital or private clinic, depending on the types of patients they tend to see.

In addition to being involved in patient care, a specialist in hepatology can also be a researcher. The liver is involved in the processing of medications, making hepatology a valuable area of skill for someone employed by a pharmaceutical company, and hepatology researchers can also study topics such as diseases of the liver, pancreas, and biliary tract, looking for new treatment approaches, possible prevention methods, and early screening tactics which can be used to identify such conditions before they permanently compromise patient health.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By bythewell — On Oct 29, 2011

@pastanaga - Medical researchers are also very interested in hepatology as it relates to medicines, which I guess is an offshoot of what you are saying about drug abuse.

I know when I was living in Africa for a while, I had to regularly get my liver tested to ensure that the malaria medication I was on wasn't affecting it.

The tests became even more regular if I was having to take medicine for something else.

And I also know lots of tropical disease affect the liver. Like malaria, for example. So, that was another thing they had to test for.

Luckily, the liver is one of the few organs that can regenerate itself, so it's pretty robust when it comes to that kind of thing!

By pastanaga — On Oct 28, 2011

@Iluviaporos - I imagine that there are different factors. I know when my sister went to specialize (as a medical scientist, rather than a doctor) she was influenced by the people who had taught her, the available research grants and scholarships, the specialists in hospitals nearby that she was hoping to study under and so forth.

And to some extent, in medicine, I think that there is an element of chance.

If you haven't got a real drive to be, say a cardiologist, and you happen to be assigned to a whole bunch of patients who suffer from conditions of the liver, for example, then you might end up with that simply being your best option.

I believe that hepatology is also often concerned with the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, and overdose, so someone might be interested in working with folk who have suffered from that, rather than in working with livers particularly.

By lluviaporos — On Oct 28, 2011

I always wonder how doctors wind up going into such particular specialties like this.

I suppose with the way people can abuse their livers over time by drinking and being too overweight, it must be a thriving specialty.

But it just seems bizarre to me that someone must have sat down at some point and decided to go into livers. I mean, I can see why someone would pick cardiology, or brain surgery or whatever, because they seem quite glamorous.

Not that I'm trying to say that people shouldn't specialize in clinical hepatology, I'm grateful that they do. It just doesn't seem like it would be a person's first choice is all.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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