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.