What is an OB-GYN?

Pregnancy
An obstetrician-gynecologist, or OB-GYN, is a healthcare professional that specializes in female reproductive health.

People trained as OB-GYNs specialize in both obstetrics and gynecology:

  • obstetrics involves working with pregnant women, including delivering babies
  • gynecology involves the female reproductive system, treating a wide range of conditions, including sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and chronic pain

In this article, we look at what an OB-GYN is, what procedures they can carry out, their qualifications, and when someone should see them. We also discuss how a person can become an OB-GYN.

What is an OB-GYN?

woman talking to consultant
An OB-GYN specializes in both obstetrics and gynecology.

AN OB-GYN is a doctor who has broad and specific training in obstetrics and gynecology.

OB-GYNs provide a wide range of preventive care services, including pap smears, STI testing, pelvic exams, ultrasounds, and blood work.

They can answer a person’s questions about pregnancy, sex, reproductive health, infertility, and numerous other topics.

Though recommendations vary with age and change over time, many women see their OB-GYNs at least once a year. Some use these physicians as their primary or only doctor.

A Montefiore news release reports that many may see their OB-GYNs as their primary care doctors. Researchers surveyed women about their use of various physicians, finding that 56 percent aged 18 to 40 visited only an OB-GYN on an annual basis. Even some women with a chronic condition primarily saw an OB-GYN.


What procedures can they perform?

OB-GYNs are trained surgeons who can perform a wide range of procedures, including:

  • cesarean sections
  • instrumental deliveries during childbirth
  • a hysterectomy
  • removing growths, such as ovarian cysts and uterine fibroids
  • surgery to repair pelvic organ injuries

OB-GYNs can also perform a wide range of routine and in-office procedures, including:

  • pap smears to test for cervical cancer
  • STI tests
  • fertility treatments, such as egg retrievals for IVF or egg-freezing
  • pelvic ultrasounds to check the pelvic organs and monitor pregnancy
  • infertility treatments and counseling
  • management of urinary issues, such as urinary tract infections and urinary incontinence
  • treating common problems, such as anemia
  • breast exams and breast health management, including mammograms and other breast cancer screenings

OB-GYNs may also address general health needs, such as screening for mental health issues, filling prescriptions for common ailments, performing blood work for common diseases, and referring people to specialists.

What areas do they specialize in?

OB-GYNs can choose from a wide range of specialties. Some opt to specialize only in obstetrics and care for pregnant women. Others only offer gynecological care and do not deliver babies.

Some OB-GYNs choose to focus on a specific aspect of the field. For instance, an obstetrician might specialize in vaginal births after cesarean delivery (VBAC).

Some also treat women using a holistic approach, or osteopathic perspective. This care often prioritizes natural or traditional remedies. The American Osteopathic Association certifies osteopathic doctors, including osteopathic OB-GYNs.

OB-GYNs may also specialize in an area that requires additional training, expertise, and accreditation, such as:

Maternal-fetal medicine specialists

Maternal-fetal medicine specialists treat high-risk pregnancies. They specialize in the health of the mother and the baby, and may also oversee complicated or high-risk deliveries, such as the vaginal delivery of a baby in the breech position.

Reproductive endocrinologists

Reproductive endocrinologists are infertility specialists. They diagnose infertility problems and develop treatment plans. Many offer in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures.

Gynecologic oncologists

Oncologist is the medical term for a doctor that specializes in cancer treatment. Gynecological oncologists treat cancer of the reproductive organs, such as ovarian and cervical cancer.

Female pelvic specialists

Female pelvic medicine specialists and reconstructive surgeons focus on injuries to and disorders of the pelvic floor and related structures. They may treat incontinence, provide pelvic floor physical therapy, or perform surgery to repair prolapsed pelvic organs.


When should someone see an OB-GYN?

young woman speaking with gynecologist
It is advisable that all women have an annual well-woman check.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that a person should first visit an OB-GYN between the ages of 13 and 15.

This visit will establish a relationship between the teenager and the doctor. The doctor will not typically perform a pelvic exam if the individual has no medical problems and is not sexually active.

A person should have their first pelvic exam and pap test around the age of 21 or when they first become sexually active.

ACOG also recommend that all women see their gynecologist annually for a well-woman visit. The specific tests a person needs at each visit vary with age, lifestyle, and health risk factors.

People should see their OB-GYN if they think they might be pregnant or for any reproductive system issues, including:

  • STD testing
  • suspected pregnancy or miscarriage
  • pregnancy complications
  • pain during sex
  • pain or other symptoms associated with urination
  • suspected infertility
  • to ask questions about sexual or reproductive health

Which qualifications do they need?

The American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology certifies all OB-GYNs in the United States.

After graduating from high school and college, a person takes the following steps to become an OB-GYN:

1. Graduate from medical school

The first 2 years of medical school focus on general medical education, including human anatomy and physiology. In the final 2 years, medical students spend much of their time in clinics or hospitals, as apprentices for doctors.

2. Residency

After medical school, the individual may practice medicine under the supervision of a more senior doctor. This is called a residency. During a residency, a doctor chooses their specialty. An OB-GYN residency typically lasts 4 years and gives a doctor the chance to observe and perform a wide range of procedures.

3. Speciality examination

After completing a residency, a doctor can take specialty board examinations. OB-GYNs must take and pass a day-long oral examination. After a further 2 years, they must also take an oral exam during which six different doctors ask them questions.

4. Board certifications

OB-GYNs who pursue additional board certifications may need to take other board examinations.

5. Ongoing development

Additionally, doctors must meet state licensure requirements. This usually means completing a certain number of continuing education credits each year.

Most OB-GYNs are active and engaged members of their profession who may have additional qualifications.

Some teach at medical schools or supervise residents. Many publish research or comment on other doctors’ academic publications. Some attend or speak at professional conferences, while others may support patient or consumer organizations.


Takeaway

An OB-GYN is a doctor who specializes in pregnancy and female reproductive health. They can perform a wide range of procedures, including sexual health screening, cancer screening, and pregnancy-related problems.

Women who cannot access an OB-GYN may be able to seek gynecological care from a primary care physician (PCP). Nurse-midwives are an excellent option for low-risk pregnant women, but they cannot perform surgery.

According to a 2018 article, the United States is currently facing a critical shortage of OB-GYNs, with fewer medical students choosing this specialty.

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists report that there is a “minimal or modest shortage of OB-GYNs that will increase in the future if past standards continue.”

Raising awareness about the importance of this specialty may help to reverse this shortage.

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