Most people think that an obstetrician and gynecologist are the same things. But they’re actually not!
Although both are medical doctors specializing in women’s health, the scope of practice and medical experience for these two careers differs significantly.
With woman’s needs changing throughout their life, it’s important that you know who to see for a specific issue or condition. This article discusses the difference between an obstetrician and gynecologist, their qualifications, the procedures they carry out, and the times when a patient needs to visit them.
Gynecology: The Science of the Female Reproductive System
Gynecology is the medical field that deals with the health and function of the female reproductive system. Thus, a gynecologist focuses on caring for a woman’s reproductive health from the time a patient gets her first period until post-menopause.
Gynecologist Specialization and Procedures Performed
A gynecologist specializes in any conditions which affect the reproductive system, such as those with the ovaries, cervix, fallopian tubes, vagina, or uterus are diagnosed and treated by a gynecologist.
They help diagnose and treat issues such as:
- Vaginal infections
- Irregular menstruation
- Endometriosis (when the tissue lining the inside of your uterus grows outside)
- Conditions that cause pain during sex
- Issues with the tissues surrounding the pelvic organs, including muscles and ligaments
- Polycystic ovary syndrome or PCOS
- Premalignant conditions such as cervical dysplasia (abnormal cell growth in the cervix lining) and endometrial hyperplasia (thickening of the uterus)
- Fecal and urinary incontinence
- Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)
- Congenital abnormalities of the female reproductive system
- Cancers of the breasts and reproductive system
- Sexuality and sexual dysfunction
- Pelvic inflammatory diseases
- Benign conditions of the reproductive system, for instance, fibroids, ovarian cysts, and breast disorders
- Advocating patients on a safe sex practice
- Emergency care relating to gynecology
In addition, a gynecologist also offers advice on sexual matters, from contraceptives to sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Overall, if it’s a non-pregnancy issue and is related to the female reproductive system, a gynecologist takes care of it.
Other than those, some gynecologists also offer both gynecological and general health care, including preventive medicine for women as well as diagnosis and treatment of issues such as mood changes, low back pain, acne, and headache. They can also treat:
- Psychiatric conditions such as personality disorders and depression
- Sexual assault and domestic violence
- Thyroid issues and other hormonal problems
In terms of medical procedures, a gynecologist is trained to carry out common diagnostic and surgical procedures. These include:
- Recommended screening such as pap smears, breast exams, and pelvic exams
- Tubal ligations (type of permanent birth control where the fallopian tubes are cut or tied)
- Hysterectomies (the removal of uterus or womb)
- Prolapse (slipping downward or forward of pelvic organs)
- Hysteroscopy (checking the uterus using an endoscope)
- Endometrial biopsy (taking samples from the uterine lining)
- Colposcopy (microscopic examination of the cervix)
- Major surgery such as the removal of fibroids in the uterus
- Laparoscopy (keyhole surgery) for surgical and diagnostic purposes
- Postoperative care, including complication management
Gynecology can also offer human papillomavirus (HPV) shots in order to protect against cancer-causing HPV as well as other surgical conditions like small bowel obstruction.
When To See a Gynecologist?
Visiting a gynecologist is recommended for yearly screening and any time that a woman has concerns about their reproductive system from pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding in the uterus to vaginal itching.
In addition, a gynecologist can treat any woman or girl at any age. It’s recommended that women start visiting a gynecologist from the start of their teenage years. Building up a relationship with a gynecologist can help a woman or young girl to be more comfortable in asking questions about the female reproductive system, from menstruation to sexuality to reproductive issues.
This also provides a gynecologist the chance to guide a patient’s overall welfare in the long term via counseling on important lifestyle and health issues.
Obstetrics: The Science of Pregnancy and Childbirth
Meanwhile, obstetrics is actually a branch of gynecology that focuses more on pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. Obstetricians are gynecologists who also specialize in obstetrics, dealing with all aspects of the female reproductive system with the addition of all aspects of pregnancy—from prenatal to postnatal care.
Obstetrician Specializations and Procedures Performed
An obstetrician can provide therapies, such as fertility treatments to help women get pregnant. They ensure that you have a healthy pregnancy and that you deliver a healthy baby. Unlike gynecologists, an obstetrician is also trained for delivering babies. After childbirth, an obstetrician still provides care and helps you deal with issues such as postpartum depression.
In addition, obstetricians are also well-trained to handle pregnancy and postpartum complications, including:
- Placenta issues such as placenta accreta (placenta grows deeply into the uterine wall) and placenta previa (baby’s placenta totally or partially covers the cervix)
- Ectopic pregnancy (when fertilized egg implants outside the womb)
- Preeclampsia (pregnancy complication that’s characterized by high blood pressure and damage to organ systems)
- Signs of fetal distress
- Cesarean delivery
- Hemorrhage after childbirth
- Sepsis or infections
- Childbirth recovery
- Cardiovascular diseases
Additionally, the surgeries and procedures obstetricians may differ from the ones gynecologists do. Other than routine appointments, labor, and delivery services, an obstetrician can also perform:
- Dilation and curettage (removing tissue from the uterus)
- Vaginal and cesarean delivery
- Cervical cerclage (single stitch to close the cervix)
- Circumcision on male babies after birth
- Episiotomy Vacuum and forceps delivery
For the high-risk pregnancy, an obstetrician may order certain tests, including:
- Lab testing for a variety of conditions
- Cervical length measurement for assessing preterm labor risk
- Cordocentesis (umbilical blood sampling)
- Biophysical profiling
- Amniocentesis (determining baby’s sex and identifying any genetic abnormalities)
- Lab testing for fetal fibronectin measurement (for predicting the likelihood of premature delivery)
As a medical specialty, obstetrics is often combined with gynecology under the discipline called obstetrics and gynecology, or more often known as OB/GYN.
OB-GYNs may choose to offer a broad range of specialties. Some professionals specialize only in obstetrics and pregnancy care, while others only offer gynecology and pregnancy and don’t deliver babies.
Furthermore, some obstetricians even choose to focus on very specific aspects of the medical field. For example, they may specialize in vaginal births after cesarean (VBAC) or those who had a cesarean birth but can deliver their next baby vaginally.
When To See an Obstetrician?
You need to make an appointment to see an obstetrician if you are thinking of becoming pregnant or currently pregnant. They should provide you with prenatal care and help in planning for your pregnancy.
Now, if you have a high-risk pregnancy, then you’ll more likely see your obstetrician more often. They will also schedule regular pregnancy appointments to:
- Run tests and ultrasound scans
- Inform and discuss your pregnancy care and childbirth
- Check on your and your baby’s health
- Discuss any lifestyle changes that you should make
Some obstetricians can also deliver babies. With that said, your obstetrician may also be with you during childbirth. They check on you during labor, deliver your baby, and manage any issues. They can also perform special emergency operations or special procedures as needed.
After childbirth, it’s recommended that you still visit your obstetrician for your postnatal care. This allows you to:
- Get clarification on anything that happened during your pregnancy or childbirth
- Talk about birth control options
- Follow up on medical issues you may encounter during pregnancy
- Keeping your vaccinations up to date
- Discuss issues that you may experience during motherhood or concerns about postpartum stress and depression
Gynecologist vs. Obstetrician: Qualifications Needed
All gynecologists must first graduate from medical school. They should be fully trained doctors with a license to practice.
In order to become a gynecologist, an individual needs to receive a bachelor’s degree, complete four years of medical school, and become a doctor of osteopathy (DO) or Doctor of Medicine (MD). After that, they need to complete a four-year obstetrics-gynecology residency program.
Those specializing in gynecology only will focus more on specialty training like:
- Genetics and genetic counseling
- Cancer screening for women
- Care or patients
- Female general health, including sexual function, reproductive system, and breast health
- Diagnosis and treatment of female reproductive disorders and hormone issues
- Surgical training for correcting female reproductive system
Obstetricians, on the other hand, spend most hours of their residency responding to pregnancy emergencies, births, and other related procedures. After completing residency, a professional should take a specialty board exam and pass.
In addition, doctors need to meet licensure requirements, which usually means completing certain numbers of continuing education credits annually. Most obstetricians and gynecologists are also engaged and active members of their profession with additional qualifications.
Some publish studies and research or comment on other medical professionals’ academic publications. Others supervise residents or teach at medical schools. Also, some speak or attend professional conferences as well as providing support to consumer or patient organizations.
You should now have a clearer idea of the difference between a gynecologist and an obstetrician. A doctor can be a gynecologist and not an obstetrician. But one can’t be an obstetrician without being a gynecologist.
Both gynecologists and obstetricians specialize in the female reproductive system, with an obstetrician focusing more on pregnancy and postpartum care. You can visit a gynecologist as early as getting your first menstruation, while you can only visit an obstetrician during pregnancy or when planning to get pregnant.