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Know Your Providers: What Does a Pulmonologist Do?

Whether you’re seeking a diagnosis for a respiratory condition or you’ve finally figured out why you’re struggling to breathe, a pulmonologist is a type of doctor you’re about to get very familiar with. But what do they do? Who do they treat? How can they help you?

That’s what this guide will cover. Read on to learn everything you need to know about pulmonologists.

What is a pulmonologist?

A pulmonologist is a physician who specializes in the respiratory system. Outside of the United States, pulmonologists are sometimes called chest or respiratory physicians. Here in the U.S., you might also hear them called respirologists or pneumonologists. From the nose to the windpipe to the lungs, if a patient’s complaint involves any part of the respiratory system, a pulmonologist is the doc you want to solve the problem.

Pulmonology is a medical field of study within internal medicine. These doctors go through the same training as an internist. They receive their degree, complete an internal medicine residency, then several years as a fellow focused primarily on pulmonology. After that, they take their boards, and if they pass those tests, only then are they able to take patients as a board-certified pulmonologist.

While the respiratory system is a specialty, pulmonologists can specialize even further. Some of these doctors focus on certain diseases, like asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and emphysema, while others treat unique demographics, like pediatric patients or geriatric patients.

Because many respiratory and cardiac conditions present similar symptoms, pulmonologists often work with cardiologists while diagnosing patients. You’ll also see them frequently in hospital settings. Patients that need life support or manual ventilation in order to breathe will have a pulmonologist overseeing that element of their care.

What Does a Pulmonologist Do?

How a pulmonologist can help you

A pulmonologist works with patients facing serious or chronic respiratory problems. While GPs, ENTs and allergists can handle most run-of-the-mill respiratory problems, you’ll need to see a pulmonologist to diagnose, treat and manage more complex illnesses that primarily affect the respiratory tract.

If you’re struggling with a pulmonary disease, diagnosis is the first step toward getting you healthy once again. A pulmonologist has far more tools in their back pocket than a general physician. Some are familiar. Think: spirometry, bloodwork, chest X-rays and CT scans. Some are more unusual, like bronchoscopies, scintigraphy and sleep studies. The more unusual ones are used to diagnose chronic conditions, like lung disease and sleep apnea.

Once you have a diagnosis, a pulmonologist will create a treatment plan. If you require surgery, that will likely be done by a surgeon who specializes on the heart and lungs. Beyond that, a pulmonologist will use medications, therapies and rehabilitation to help you return to wellness.

Because respiratory diseases are often debilitating and require long-term care, pulmonologists are well-versed in working with the patient and the patient’s family and healthcare team. They should be able to adapt treatment plans to work with a patient’s situation and ought to be exceptional educators who can help you and your loved ones understand your condition and your path forward.

When should you see a pulmonologist?

A simple cough associated with allergies or a cold shouldn’t send you looking for a pulmonary specialist. Urgent care or your GP should be your first stop, and then on to an allergist or ENT.

You should see a pulmonologist if that cough persists for more than 3 weeks, or if it becomes severe.

When else should you see a pulmonologist? Here are symptoms that call for a specialist ASAP:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Difficulty breathing, especially during exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Recurring or chronic bronchitis or colds that impact your respiratory system
  • Asthma that isn’t well-controlled, or if you can’t figure out what triggers it

What Does a Pulmonologist Do?

How to find a pulmonologist

If you’re struggling with any of the symptoms above, or you’re not satisfied with the diagnosis you’ve received from a general doctor, it’s time to find a pulmonologist. There are a few different ways to go about finding a new respiratory specialist. Here are your options:

#1. Ask your GP for a referral

Many doctors cultivate contacts among local specialists so that they can refer their patients to doctors whose work they know and trust. If you’re not getting close to a diagnosis, ask your primary care provider if they can recommend a pulmonologist.

Your health insurance company might require you to get a referral to a specialist. Check the fine print on your policy to see if this is true for your health insurance plan.

#2. Look through your health insurance company’s provider database

If you’re looking for a second opinion, this is probably the route you want to take. Every health insurance company offers an online database of all its contracted in-network doctors. You should be able to find it by accessing your health insurance member site. Search for a pulmonologist or respiratory specialist.

If you have a few options to choose from, conduct a Google search on each one. Read reviews, look for any specialties they focus on and see if they’re taking new patients. Then, it’s time to make an appointment.

With lung complaints—especially if you’re having trouble breathing—you want to see a doctor as quickly as you can because these problems can quickly worsen. If one doctor can’t see you soon, call another. If you’re still having trouble booking an appointment, ask your GP’s office to make the call for you. Some doctors set aside emergency slots for situations like this.

For respiratory conditions, there’s no type of doctor better than a pulmonologist. While it can still take time to receive a diagnosis—and longer still for treatments to take effect—trust in these highly trained professionals to make your well-being their highest priority.

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