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5 Pairs of Commonly Confused Medical Specialties

Kelsey Tyler

Between standard types of doctors we’re all familiar with, lesser-known sub-specialists, allied healthcare providers who aren’t doctors, and doctors who aren’t MDs — there are many different types of providers out there. In some cases, identifying the right one is a no-brainer. In other cases, you might find yourself choosing between providers whose areas of expertise seem similar or even overlap. 

Here are five pairs of commonly confused providers. With help from experts in the fields, we’ve broken down how they’re distinct, why patients confuse them and when to see one over the other.

Nutritionist vs. Dietitian

The gist

If you’re dealing with digestive problems, an eating disorder or a chronic condition that comes with dietary restrictions, or you need help creating or sticking to a weight loss plan, you might benefit from professional support. Broadly speaking, both nutritionists and dietitians issue nutritional guidance based on patients’ health goals and medical histories, and neither one is a medical doctor.

Dietitians

Registered dietitians are credentialed health professionals who specialize in dietetics, meaning the scientific impact of diet on health. To earn this protected title, they need to get a bachelor’s degree, at a minimum, and pass a national licensing exam. Some RDs prefer to call themselves “registered dietitian nutritionists”; the titles are interchangeable and denote the same credentials.

Caroline Susie, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says many dietitians work in hospitals, weight-management facilities and rehab centers, where they provide medical nutrition therapy to patients with conditions including cancer and diabetes. For example, at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, dietitians collaborate with each patient’s healthcare team to recommend individually tailored meal plans.

Many dietitians also have their own private practices; their varied services might include helping patients with celiac disease avoid gluten while getting the nutrients they need, supporting people with eating disorders through recovery and more. Research has also found dietitians to be valuable for patients struggling to lose weight, who don’t otherwise need nutritional services for a diagnosed condition. 

Nutritionists

“Nutritionist” is a broad, informal title that’s much less regulated, and its usage can be confusing. In most states, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Only licensed professionals are qualified to help you with certain health needs. States may use different titles to denote nutrition credentials. “Certified nutrition specialist” is a common title, but it’s not used everywhere.

Unlike dietitians, certified nutritionist specialists cannot prescribe diets as formal treatment for medical conditions, and they don’t work in hospitals or health clinics. But they are qualified to offer general advice on making healthier food choices for your body type and maintaining your ideal weight. They typically formulate advice based on health metrics, such as calculating the ideal ratio of macronutrients in your daily diet. They often work in private practice and alternative health practices.

Whom to see when

A dietitian is the best place to start if you need customized dietary care. For example, if you’re an older adult who can’t chew hard foods, it’s vital for nutritional advice to come from a medical professional who’s up to date on current science.

For more generalized health and wellness pointers, dietitians will work with you, but certified nutrition specialists can also meet your needs. No matter what, make sure to see someone with proper credentials. Avoid self-appointed “nutritionists” who lack certification to practice. While most insurance companies only cover visits with registered dietitians, some may cover nutritionist appointments too. Check your plan. 

Orthopedist vs. Podiatrist

The gist

If you’re looking for a foot pain doctor, your options might include both podiatrists and orthopedists. Both providers treat musculoskeletal injuries and can perform foot and ankle surgeries. Orthopedists are medical doctors; they have MDs. Podiatrists don’t have MDs, but they do complete doctoral-level training programs to become doctors of podiatry (DPs). And while podiatrists focus exclusively on the foot and ankle, that’s not necessarily the case for orthopedists — it depends. 

Orthopedists

Also called orthopedic surgeons, orthopedists treat musculoskeletal conditions throughout the whole body. Some further specialize in certain body parts, such as the knees and hips, or feet and ankles. 

Patients will commonly seek out an orthopedist for joint replacement. Among the most common orthopedic surgeries are ACL reconstruction, knee replacement, ankle repair, and hip replacement. Patients often assume orthopedic surgeons are strictly surgeons, but they also offer nonsurgical fixes for broken bones and sprains. 

Podiatrists

Podiatrists are experts on the feet and lower legs. That means they treat chronic conditions affecting the feet, such as diabetes, in addition to broken foot and heel bones, Achilles tendon injuries and arthritis. “A person with diabetes or peripheral arterial disease needs the care of their feet so they don’t develop problems,” says James Christina, CEO of the American Podiatric Medical Association. “That’s an area where podiatry excels.”

Whom to see when

If you have diabetes, ask your primary care provider whether you should see a podiatrist or orthopedist. If you need orthotics (customized shoe inserts), or any other nonsurgical foot or ankle treatments, see a podiatrist. Otherwise, Christina says, both podiatrists and orthopedic surgeons are excellent options for foot-and-ankle surgical procedures. If you need surgery, it’s the dealer’s choice.

Most podiatrists take some form of insurance. Check with your insurance provider before any orthopedic surgeries to determine how much of the procedure is covered, since surgeries tend to include extra fees. 

Ophthalmologist vs. Optometrist

The gist 

Vision blurry? Recurring migraines? Both ophthalmologists and optometrists treat eye diseases like cataracts and glaucoma, prescribe glasses and contact lenses, provide preventive services such as comprehensive eye health exams and vision tests, and monitor eye problems related to chronic conditions like diabetes. The main difference? Surgery. 

Ophthalmologists 

Ophthalmologists are medical doctors, who, unlike optometrists, can perform surgery for conditions like crossed eyes, cataracts and glaucoma. Some further specialize in pediatric care, glaucoma, or diseases affecting different parts of the eye, like the retina or cornea. They might also perform cosmetic surgery for droopy eyelids or wrinkles.

Optometrists 

Optometrists are not medical doctors, but they complete doctoral-level training to become doctors of optometry. Optometrists are best known for providing routine care. Although they can’t perform surgery, optometrists can handle all aspects of eye care, like conducting vision tests, prescribing glasses and medications and treating infections. Additionally, they can diagnose conditions like dry eye and retinal tears, the effects of diabetes, HIV, and high blood pressure on the eyes. 

Whom to see and when

Think of your optometrist as the primary care doctor for your eyes. For surgical procedures, like laser eye surgery, you’ll need to see an ophthalmologist. Optometrists refer patients to ophthalmologists when patients need surgery. One thing to remember is that the type of insurance you’d use to see these providers is often different: Medical insurance typically covers ophthalmology visits, while vision plans cover optometry visits.

Gastroenterologist vs. Colorectal surgeon 

The gist

Both gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons are medical doctors whose expertise covers the entire GI tract, from the esophagus to the liver. They both perform procedures including endoscopies and laparoscopies and treat conditions including colon cancer and intestinal bleeding.

Colorectal surgeons

A colorectal surgeon’s job is primarily based on one word: surgery. They can diagnose and treat colorectal cancer, anal warts, constipation, hemorrhoids, anal fissures, Crohn’s Disease and more. For example, a person with Crohn’s Disease might need surgery to correct complications from the disease that can no longer be fixed through other methods, such as intestinal blockages and bleeding. For anal itching or burning, a colorectal surgeon may be the best avenue, but check with your PCP first.

Gastroenterologists 

Most GI doctors focus on day-to-day disease prevention and management for all things gastrointestinal, and typically don’t perform major surgery. They can diagnose and treat conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, ulcers, hepatitis C, pancreatitis, gallbladder and biliary tract disease, and more, and prescribe medications for these conditions. For example, a GI doctor might prescribe medication to relieve symptoms of IBS or Crohn’s. Stomach, pancreas and liver disease is GI territory. 

Whom to see when

Interestingly enough, gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons often work together. A gastroenterologist can identify and diagnose a GI disorder. They’ll refer patients to colorectal surgeons for problems that can’t be removed via endoscopy, such as colon cancer and large polyps.

Colorectal cancer screenings are considered a preventive service under federal law. That means most insurance plans must cover the full cost. Other visits and procedures done by both gastroenterologists and colorectal surgeons are also usually covered by insurers. Check your plan for more information. 

Nephrologist vs. Urologist 

The gist 

Nephrologists treat kidney health issues, from chronic kidney disease and kidney cancer to blood in the urine and kidney stones, while urologists specialize in the urinary tract (and also the male reproductive system). Both types of specialists are medical doctors. Here’s the catch: Kidneys are part of the urinary tract, so problems involving the kidneys, such as kidney stones, can be handled by either type of specialist. 

Nephrologists 

Nephrologists identify, diagnose and treat disorders that affect the kidneys, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as kidney infections and kidney failure. Generally, your primary care physician will refer you to a nephrologist if they suspect kidney issues might be at the root of your issues. “For the most part, anything that has to be managed surgically in the kidney will go to a urologist,” says Urology Care Foundation Public Education council member Dr. Brian Stork. “And most [kidney] things that need to be managed medically will go to the nephrologist.” Nephrologists commonly use blood and urine tests to detect different conditions, and create treatment programs for patients on dialysis when they develop kidney failure. Nephrologists assist patients who are having kidney transplants — and the aftercare management.

Urologists

Urologists are experts on the male and female urinary tracts, as well as the male reproductive system. They treat kidney cancer (for which you would see a urologic oncologist), incontinence, bladder cancer, urinary tract infections, kidney stones, male erectile dysfunction and infertility, and more. When it comes to removing a kidney, kidney stone or kidney tumor, urologists are the experts.

Urologists perform prostate exams. These have two components: a rectal exam and a blood test to identify elevated levels of prostate-specific antigen (a possible sign of prostate cancer). Male patients should see urologists for any testicular pain or erectile dysfunction. Urologists can help identify the cause of recurring urinary tract infections and bladder control issues in women. For single cases of urinary tract infections, women should go to their primary care doctor, but if they become persisting issue, a urologist will often complete an cystoscopy to figure out the issue at-hand. 

Whom to see when

Like many other closely related specialties, nephrologists and urologists frequently collaborate, so you may need to see both if surgery is required. “If we have a patient who comes in with a kidney stone that’s causing a blockage and the patient’s really sick and we removed the stone, but maybe their kidney function doesn’t pick up right away, we’ll have a nephrology colleague involved to help us get the kidney function as best as we possibly can,” Stork says. 

Visits to these specialists are generally covered by insurance, but you might need a referral from your PCP — policies vary by plan. 


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