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Otolaryngology is a medical specialty which is focused on the ears, nose, and throat. It is also sometimes referred to as otolaryngology-head and neck surgery, since otolaryngologists are qualified to perform surgeries on the delicate and complex tissues of the head and neck. A practitioner of otolaryngology may also be called an ear, nose, and throat doctor, or an ENT for short. In addition to the general medical specialty of otolaryngology, doctors can also focus on a variety of subspecialties which are devoted to specific regions of the head and neck or particular systemic medical problems.
This medical specialty dates back to the 19th century, when doctors recognized that the head and neck had a series of interconnected systems. Doctors developed techniques and tools for looking at the structures of the head and neck, and a medical specialty was born. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, this specialty is the oldest medical specialty in the United States. The Academy also maintains an extensive museum which covers topics in otolaryngology which date back to the Ancient Greek era.
An otolaryngologist who specializes in the nose is known as a rhinologist, while otolaryngologists who focus on the ears are called otologists. An ENT can also focus just on disorders of the throat, in which case the doctor is called a laryngologist. Others specialize in reconstructive surgery, facial plastic surgery, sleep disorders, pediatric conditions of the ear, nose, and throat, and cancers of the head and neck. Doctors of otolaryngology use tools like otoscopes and laryngoscopes to examine their patients; these medical devices have also spilled over into other medical practices, since they are useful diagnostic tools.
Patients may go directly to a doctor trained in otolaryngology if they experience medical conditions which affect the head and neck. Other doctors may also refer patients to an otolaryngologist if they feel that they cannot treat the patient's condition. Some doctors in pediatric otolaryngology and reconstructive surgery also generously donate their time overseas to repair common medical problems like cleft lips and palates in the developing world.
Training in this medical specialty includes four years of medical school, followed by a brief general surgery residency and then a residency which focuses on head and neck surgery. Physicians who wish to pursue subspecialties must take fellowships which offer additional training. Once fully trained, an otolaryngologist can apply for board certification in the specialty, although board certification is not required for medical practice.