Specialties Explained

To learn more about a particular specialty, click on the first letter of the specialty name below.

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P
Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Allergist (immunologist)
Allergists (also called immunologists) are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of immune system diseases. They treat people with conditions such as asthma, eczema, and allergic reactions to food, medications, insect stings, or environmental agents such as pollen. Allergists may specialize in treating certain types of conditions, such as food allergies, or they may specialize in treating people in certain age groups, such as pediatric allergists, who treat children. As more is understood about immune system disorders, allergists treat a broader range of conditions caused by immune system problems. Allergists can be board-certified by the Board of Allergy and Immunology, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Anesthesiologist
Anesthesiologists are medical doctors who specialize in anesthesiology, which is the use of pain-blocking techniques or medications (anesthetics) during surgery and other medical procedures. An anesthesiologist may administer medication that numbs the area of the body where a procedure is being performed (local or regional anesthesia), inject medicine into the spinal canal to numb an area of the body (spinal or epidural anesthesia), or make sure a person is unconscious and pain-free during a procedure (general anesthesia) while also monitoring heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. An anesthesiologist may also supervise a nurse anesthetist. Anesthesiologists can further specialize in critical care medicine, pain management, pediatrics, or obstetrics. Anesthesiologists can be board-certified through the Board of Anesthesiology, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Cardiologist
Cardiologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases or conditions of the heart and blood vessels, such as chest pain (angina), irregular heart rhythms, high blood pressure, heart failure, or heart attacks. Cardiologists administer tests that indicate how well a person's heart is working, such as a treadmill test (exercise electrocardiogram), and perform procedures such as cardiac catheterization and angioplasty. They can further specialize in interventional cardiology (the use of mechanical treatment methods, such as angioplasty) or electrophysiology (treatments involving the heart's electrical system) and may also specialize in treating specific age groups, such as a pediatric cardiologist, who only treats children. Cardiologists can be board-certified through the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. Pediatric cardiologists are recognized by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Critical care medicine specialist (intensivist)
Critical care medicine specialists (also called intensivists) are medical doctors who specialize in the care of people who are in an intensive care unit (ICU). In some areas, when a person is very ill and has to spend time in an ICU, he or she is cared for by a critical care medicine specialist. After the person is transferred out of the ICU to a regular hospital unit, another doctor or health professional assumes care. Most critical care specialists are pulmonologists (specializing in lung disease) or cardiologists (specializing in heart disease). Critical care specialists may also first specialize in anesthesiology, internal medicine, neurological surgery, pediatrics, or surgery and then hold a subspecialist certificate in critical care medicine. Critical care medicine specialists can be board-certified through the Boards of Anesthesiology, Internal Medicine, or Pediatrics, which are all recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Certified diabetes educator (CDE)
Diabetes educators are health professionals, such as doctors, nurses, dietitians, pharmacists, exercise specialists, and social workers, who specialize in the treatment of people with diabetes. Diabetes educators teach about nutrition, exercise, medication, blood sugar monitoring, and emotional adjustment to diabetes. They work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, doctor's offices, nursing homes, and neighborhood clinics. They may teach people in groups or individually. Certified diabetes educators (CDEs) are licensed in their professional field in the state in which they practice. Most are certified by the National Certification Board of Diabetes Educators. Certification is voluntary.

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Endocrinologist
Endocrinologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the endocrine glands, which regulate hormones. Endocrinologists are internists with additional training in endocrinology. They often treat diabetes and thyroid disorders. They may further specialize in treating specific age groups, such as pediatric endocrinologists, who only treat children. Endocrinologists can be board-certified through the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Gastroenterologist
Gastroenterologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the digestive system, such as hepatitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, and colon or rectal cancer. Gastroenterologists may perform many specialized tests, such as endoscopy, to diagnose or treat diseases. When necessary, they may consult with surgeons. Gastroenterologists may further specialize in treating people in certain age groups, such as pediatric gastroenterologists, who only treat children. Gastroenterologists can be board-certified by the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Hematologist
Hematologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the blood and blood system, such as anemia, blood-clotting disorders, and leukemia. Hematologists may also perform procedures such as bone marrow aspiration and biopsy, order blood transfusions, or diagnose blood disorders. Hematologists may be internists or pathologists who further specialize in disorders of the blood. Hematologists can be board-certified in hematology through the Board of Internal Medicine or the American Board of Pathology, which are recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Medical Oncologist
Medical oncologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. They may be involved in determining the type and extent of cancer and providing treatments such as chemotherapy. After treatment, oncologists provide follow-up care to monitor the progress of people who have had cancer and resume care for them if their cancer returns. Medical oncologists may further specialize in treating certain types of cancers or treating specific age groups, such as pediatric oncologists, who only treat children. Medical oncologists can be board-certified in medical oncology through the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Neonatologist
A neonatologist is a pediatric doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders in newborns. Neonatologists are usually consultants and work in neonatal intensive care units, providing care for premature infants or those born with infections or other health problems. Neonatologists can be board-certified through the Board of Pediatrics, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Nephrologist
Nephrologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the kidney and urinary system, such as inflammation of the kidneys, chronic kidney disease, or cancer. Nephrologists may further specialize in treating certain age groups, such as pediatric nephrologists, who only treat children. Nephrologists may consult with people for short-term illnesses or procedures, such as for a kidney biopsy, or they may serve as a primary doctor for people who have long-term (chronic) kidney problems or who are on dialysis. Nephrologists can be board-certified in nephrology through the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Neurologist
Neurologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of brain, spinal cord, and nervous system diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, headaches, stroke, or injury. A neurologist can order or interpret tests such as a computed tomography (CT) scan, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), or lumbar puncture to diagnose problems and may conduct tests to evaluate how well a nerve or muscle is working. A neurologist can prescribe medications to treat diseases or may refer a person to another specialist if needed. Neurologists can be board-certified by the Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Nurse practitioner (NP) Nurse practitioners (NPs) are registered nurses (RNs) who have advanced education and clinical training. They can perform physical examinations, diagnose and treat health problems, order lab work and X-rays, prescribe medications, and provide health information. Nurse practitioners may specialize in the care of children (pediatric nurse practitioner), older adults (geriatric nurse practitioner), people of all ages (family nurse practitioner), or people with mental health problems (psychiatric nurse practitioner). Nurse practitioners are licensed by the state in which they practice. Most nurse practitioners are nationally certified in their specialty area.

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Occupational therapist (OT)
Occupational therapists are health and rehabilitation professionals who help people regain, develop, and build skills that are important for independent functioning, health, well-being, security, and happiness. Occupational therapists work with people of all ages who, because of illness, injury, developmental delays, or psychological problems, need assistance in learning skills to help them lead independent, productive, and satisfying lives. Occupational therapists (OTs) can be licensed at the professional level after completing a bachelor's or master's degree. In 2007, OTs will be required to have a master's degree. Occupational therapy assistants (OTAs) have usually completed a 2-year associate degree program. Occupational therapists must also complete a supervised fieldwork program and pass a national certification exam. All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico regulate the practice of occupational therapy

Orthopedic surgeon
Orthopedic surgeons are medical doctors who specialize in bone, muscle, and joint surgery. This includes corrective procedures, such as removing torn cartilage or replacing a joint. Some orthopedic surgeons specialize in specific areas such as shoulder surgery, hand surgery, or joint replacement. Orthopedic surgeons can be board-certified through the Board of Orthopaedic Surgery, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist)
Otolaryngologists, sometimes referred to as otorhinolaryngologists or ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctors, are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases or conditions of the ear, nose, and throat. Otolaryngologists can prescribe medication and perform surgery for sinus problems, sleep apnea, or to remove tonsils or cancerous growths, for example. Some otolaryngologists also do certain cosmetic procedures to improve appearance. Otolaryngologists can be board-certified through the Board of Otolaryngology, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Pediatrician
Pediatricians are medical doctors who specialize in the care of children. Pediatricians can treat children with any type of problem, or they may specialize in specific areas, such as:

  • Adolescent medicine (conditions and diseases common to teenagers).
  • Cardiology (diseases and conditions of the heart and blood vessels).
  • Developmental disorders (behavior, communication, and mental disorders in children).
  • Endocrinology (diseases of the endocrine glands, which regulate hormones).
  • Gastroenterology (diseases of the digestive system).
  • Infectious disease (complex infections).
  • Nephrology (diseases of the kidney and urinary system).
  • Oncology (cancer).

Pediatricians can be board-certified through the Board of Pediatrics, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Physical therapist (PT)
Physical therapists are health professionals who evaluate physical problems and injuries, then provide education and treatment to promote health and physical function. Physical therapists also develop programs that include exercise and stretching to increase fitness and prevent injury. A physical therapist provides hands-on treatment to help return normal movement to joints and muscles and gives instruction about exercises to help heal and strengthen the body. Treatment may include physical or mechanical means, such as exercise, heat, or mild electrical current. Physical therapists also use devices such as prosthetics (artificial limbs), orthotics (braces and supports), and equipment to help a person in daily life. Some physical therapists treat a wide range of ailments. Others specialize in areas such as pediatrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, sports physical therapy, neurology, cardiovascular, pulmonary, oncology, and women's health. Physical therapists work for hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, rehabilitation facilities, fitness facilities, and schools. Physical therapists earn a master's degree or entry-level doctorate in physical therapy from an accredited physical therapist educational program that includes a period of clinical work. All states require physical therapists to pass a licensure exam before they can practice.

Psychologist
Psychologists are health professionals with training and expertise in human behavior and psychological health. Psychologists are not medical doctors, but they hold a doctor of psychology (PsyD degree) or doctor of philosophy (PhD degree) in clinical psychology, counseling, or school psychology. Psychologists evaluate and treat people who have mental health problems, such as depression. Psychologists also provide counseling and other mental health services. In most states, psychologists do not prescribe medication. However, many states are reviewing prescription-writing privileges for psychologists, and regulations may change. Some psychologists practicing in New Mexico, Louisiana, the territory of Guam, the U.S. military, Indian Health Services, and other departments of the federal government have prescription privileges. Psychologists are licensed in the state in which they practice.

Pulmonologist
Pulmonologists are medical doctors who further specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of lung disease, such as asthma, emphysema, or pneumonia. Pulmonologists perform tests to check how well a person is breathing, and they may use procedures such as bronchoscopy to diagnose a breathing problem. Pulmonologists can be board-certified through the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Registered dietitian (RD)
Registered dietitians (RDs) are health professionals who teach people about nutrition or develop diets to promote health. They can also specialize in nutritional counseling to help treat food-related psychological problems, such as anorexia or bulimia. Dietitians work in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Registered dietitians also work in government, restaurant management, fitness, food companies, and private practices. Registered dietitians complete a bachelor's degree at an accredited college or university. They also must complete a 6- to 12-month supervised practice program and pass a national examination sponsored by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Some RDs hold additional certifications in specialized areas of practice, such as pediatric or renal nutrition, nutrition support, or diabetes education. These certifications are awarded through the CDR or other medical and nutrition organizations.

Registered nurse (RN)
Registered nurses (RNs) provide treatment, counseling, and health education. They provide assessment, plan and implement care, and evaluate outcomes. Nurses work as part of a health care team in a variety of environments, often under the supervision of a doctor. While most nurses work in hospitals, others work in settings such as community or public health, outpatient care, nursing education, occupational health, nursing home agencies, hospice programs, schools, and student health clinics. A registered nurse (RN) may hold either a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from a 4-year university or an associate degree in nursing (ADN) from a 2-year college. All graduates must successfully pass the Registered Nurse Licensing Examination to become licensed to practice as a professional RN. Graduation from a state-accredited program is a prerequisite to taking the licensing examination. A registered nurse must hold a current license in the state in which he or she practices. Licensing requirements are managed by individual state boards of nursing.

Respiratory therapist (RT)
Respiratory therapists (RTs) are health professionals who evaluate, treat, and care for people with breathing problems. Respiratory therapists use oxygen, medications, and mechanical measures such as chest percussion to help people breathe more effectively. Most respiratory therapists work under the direct supervision of a doctor. Respiratory therapists treat people of all ages, from premature babies with undeveloped lungs to older adults with respiratory disease. Most respiratory therapists work in hospitals but some also work in nursing homes and doctor's offices. Respiratory therapists have either a 2-year associate degree or a 4-year bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. The National Board for Respiratory Care (NBRC) offers voluntary certification and registration to graduates of accredited programs. Two credentials are awarded to respiratory therapists who satisfy the requirements: registered respiratory therapist (RRT) and certified respiratory therapist (CRT). Either the CRT or RRT examination is the standard in the states that require licensure.

Rheumatologist
Rheumatologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the joints. Rheumatologists may further specialize in diagnosing and treating arthritis and other rheumatic conditions, such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or lupus. Rheumatologists can be board-certified through the Board of Internal Medicine, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Sleep disorders specialist
Sleep disorders specialists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and surgical and nonsurgical treatment of sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and snoring. Sleep disorders specialists are not recognized as a separate medical subspecialty but are usually pulmonologists or otolaryngologists who are board-certified through either the Board of Internal Medicine or the Board of Otolaryngology, which are both recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Social worker
Social workers are health professionals who use counseling to help people function in their environment, improve their relationships with others, and solve personal and family problems. They also help people locate and access appropriate resources for their particular needs. A social worker may work in a hospital, community organization, or private counseling. Most social workers concentrate on a specific area of practice. For example, clinical social workers provide psychotherapy or counseling and a range of diagnostic services in public agencies, clinics, and private practice; child or adult protective services social workers investigate reports of abuse and neglect and intervene if necessary; and medical social workers provide counseling to people receiving therapy for physical problems or addictive behaviors in hospitals, nursing homes, and rehabilitation facilities. While many social worker positions, such as a child protective services social worker, require only a bachelor's degree (BSW), most require a master's degree (MSW). All 50 states require licensing, certification, and registration of social workers. Requirements vary from state to state.

Speech-language pathologist (speech therapist)
Speech-language pathologists assess, diagnose, treat, and help prevent speech, language, and communication disorders. Speech-language pathologists work with people who cannot make speech sounds or cannot make them clearly; have speech rhythm and fluency problems, such as stuttering; have voice quality problems, such as an inappropriate pitch or harsh voice; have problems understanding and producing language; have cognitive communication problems, such as attention, memory, and problem-solving disorders; or have oral motor problems that cause eating and swallowing difficulties. Speech pathologists work in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, rehabilitation facilities, schools, and private practices. A speech-language pathologist has a master's degree in speech and language and has completed postgraduate clinical work under the supervision of a licensed speech-language pathologist. Speech-language pathologists can acquire the certificate of clinical competence in speech-language pathology (CCC-SLP) offered by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association

Surgeon
Surgeons are medical doctors who specialize in evaluating people with potential surgical problems and performing surgical operations and techniques. Common surgeries include hernia repairs, gallbladder removal, and removal of the appendix. There are many subspecialties in surgery, including chest (thoracic) surgery, blood vessel (vascular) surgery, colon and rectal surgery, and plastic surgery. Surgeons may further specialize by limiting their practice to specific age groups, such as pediatric surgeons, who only treat children. Surgeons can be board-certified through the Board of Surgery, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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Urologist
Urologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the urinary system in men and women and disorders of the male reproductive system. Urologists can prescribe medications, perform surgery, and treat urination problems, such as difficulty holding urine (incontinence) and tumors or stones in the urinary system. They treat problems of the male reproductive system such as impotence (erectile dysfunction). Urogynecologists specialize in treating urinary problems involving the female reproductive system, and pediatric urologists specialize in diagnosing and treating urinary problems in children. Urologists can be board-certified through the American Board of Urology, which is recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties.

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