Column: Endocrinology ~ What is it and why is it important?
The endocrine system, made of specialized glands, tissues and hormones, influences the function of almost every cell and organ in our bodies. Hormones regulate and control our response to stressful events, the digestion and metabolism of food and nutrients, sexual functioning and reproduction, childhood growth and more. The endocrine system is fine-tuned to release the right amount of hormones at the right time to maintain health. However, if too little or too much of any hormone is produced, illness can result.
Endocrinologists are physicians who specialize in treating diseases and disorders of the endocrine system. These conditions include, but are not limited to diabetes, thyroid disease, reproductive dysfunction, growth hormone disorders and diseases of the adrenal glands, like Cushing's syndrome and Addison's disease.
Endocrinologists are board- certified doctors of internal medicine who follow their medical training with several years of specialized education and practice in the diagnosis and treatment of hormone-related diseases.
According to the American College of Internal Physicians, not everyone who suffers from endocrine disorder needs an endocrinologist. Many hormonal problems can be diagnosed and handled by general practitioners. The skills of an endocrinologist are valuable for complicated disorders, such as uncontrolled diabetes, thyroid disease, pituitary dysfunction and autoimmune diseases. For example, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends that most people with type 1 diabetes see an endocrinologist, especially when they are first diagnosed or struggling to stabilize blood sugar levels. Individuals with type 2 diabetes, however, may only see an endocrinologist if they are experiencing complications, starting insulin therapy or having extreme difficulty with blood sugar control.
Likewise, patients with thyroid disorders such as thyroid nodules, cancer, thyroid disease in pregnancy or Grave's disease, an autoimmune condition that leads to excessive production of thyroid hormones, will benefit from working with an endocrinologist. Most patients with hypo- or insufficient thyroid hormone production do not need a specialist and do well with the help and guidance of general practitioners. The American Thyroid Association posts a number of helpful brochures and frequently asked questions about thyroid disease and treatment on the website: http://www.thyroid.org.
Dr. Karen Box, board certified in internal medicine and endocrinology, diabetes and metabolism joined Yavapai Regional Medical Center PhysicianCare this year and began seeing patients in November. She has been in practice for 23 years, most recently in Phoenix, as part of a multidisciplinary group. Dr. Box is looking forward to providing endocrinology care to Prescott and the surrounding communities, and works with patients on a referral basis from physicians. As the only endocrinology specialist working in the area, she agrees that her skills are best suited for those patients most in need.
Endocrinologists are actually in short supply, with approximately 6,800 board-certified practitioners in the U.S., according to the latest statistics from the American Board of Internal Medicine. In comparison, there are over 210,000 board-certified doctors of internal medicine. Because of this, many endocrinologists rely on a team of healthcare providers, including diabetes educators, primary- care providers, physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide supportive education and care.
If you are wondering about the benefits of seeing an endocrinologist, ask your primary-care physician. In most cases, an endocrinologist will determine whether you are a good candidate for specialized treatment and will work with your physician and other healthcare providers for education and follow-up care.