What is the Difference Between Obstetrics & Gynecology?

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The difference between obstetrics and gynecology can be confusing, as both obstetricians and gynecologists focus on women’s health. Also, as they are often double-certified and become OB/GYNs, some people incorrectly use the titles interchangeably.

This information is provided by North Texas Medical Center, a leading Gainesville hospital and provider of women’s health services. Let’s begin by defining Obstetrics and Gynecology, then discuss how they are similar, as well as how they differ.

What is Obstetrics?

Merriam Webster defines obstetrics as “a branch of medical science that deals with pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period.”

An obstetrician (OB) is a doctor who specializes in pre-conception, pregnancy, childbirth, and a woman’s reproductive system. They do not treat health issues outside of pregnancy. A board-certified OB has completed their residency training and passed rigorous written and oral exams.

While other doctors can deliver babies, many women choose to see an obstetrician. They can take care of you throughout your pregnancy and can continue to give you care for many years to come.

During your pregnancy, your OB will monitor your health and the health of your developing baby. This will include routine ultrasounds, measurements, routine tests, and anything else that may be needed.

Your obstetrician will also check for health conditions that could cause problems during your pregnancy, affecting you or your baby’s health. This includes such things as infections, genetic disorders, high blood pressure, or diabetes.

He or she will advise you on your diet and exercise, as well as any medications you may require, as these also affect your developing baby. They will also answer your questions, help you prepare for labor and delivery, and help you deal with common pregnancy complaints, such as:

  • heartburn
  • back pain
  • leg pain
  • morning sickness

Your OB will also deliver your baby and monitor your health as you recuperate.

OBs work together with nurses, midwives, physician assistants, and other health professionals to provide your care. You may see these team members during routine prenatal visits.

Nurses or labor coaches will help you through the hard work of labor while your OB monitors your progress. When the time comes, your OB will deliver your baby. However, if your OB is in a group practice where the doctors share “on-call” duties, another doctor in the group may deliver your baby. Be sure to ask about this when choosing your OB so you don’t have any last-minute surprises.

Family doctors and midwives can also help you through your pregnancy and delivery, but there are certain situations where it may be important to seek care from an OB:

  • If you are over 35 years old or have a high-risk pregnancy, you might consider getting your prenatal care from an OB.
  • If you have a high-risk pregnancy, you would likely benefit from seeing a maternal-fetal medicine specialist, an OB with advanced training in complicated pregnancies.
  • If your family practice doctor or midwife is providing your pregnancy care and you develop complications, they will likely want to consult with or directly refer you to an OB.

If you are healthy and anticipate a healthy, normal pregnancy, you still may prefer to get your care from an OB.

What is Gynecology?

According to Miriam Webster, gynecology is the branch of physiology and medicine which deals with the functions and diseases specific to women and girls, especially those affecting the reproductive system.

So, a gynecologist is a surgeon who specializes in the female reproductive system. He or she will diagnose and treat menstrual problems, infertility issues, contraception, and sexuality. Most gynecologists also provide prenatal care, and some provide primary care.

Physicians who focus on gynecology do not deliver babies or treat pregnant women. They conduct cancer screenings, treat urinary tract issues, infections, menstrual problems, ovarian cysts, and more.

Usually, it’s your gynecologist who will perform your Pap smear or Pap test, in which cells from the cervix are gently removed to test for cervical cancer or cell changes that may lead to cervical cancer. A Pap test may also discover other conditions, such as infections or inflammation.

Most gynecologists are also obstetricians.

Obstetrics vs Gynecology

An obstetrician is a specialist in the management of pregnancy, labor, and the time immediately following childbirth known as puerperium. An obstetrician/gynecologist, also known as an OB/GYN, covers areas ranging from preventive care to family planning to detection of sexually transmitted diseases. They may also be involved in adolescent gynecology and endocrinology or deal with behavioral problems among young women.

You may have an OB/GYN throughout your pregnancy and delivery, and afterward. OB/GYNs have graduated from medical school and completed a four-year residency program in obstetrics and gynecology. The residency trains them in pre-pregnancy health, pregnancy, labor and childbirth, possible health problems after childbirth, genetics, and genetic counseling.

There are four subspecialties for an OB/GYN:

  1. Gynecologic oncology
  2. Reproductive endocrinology and infertility
  3. Maternal/fetal medicine
  4. Urogynecology/reconstructive pelvic surgery

After medical school graduation, future OB/GYNs complete residency-training programs focused on health in all stages of pregnancy, from pre-conception to post-pregnancy. Residents learn about genetics, genetic counseling, and issues surrounding prenatal diagnoses.

Many residency rotations also include in-depth instruction on ultrasonography, reproductive endocrinology, infertility, family planning, gynecologic surgery, and gynecologic oncology. 

Residents can further specialize and continue with training in a primary subspecialty:

  • urogynecological surgery
  • maternal-fetal medicine
  • reproductive endocrinology
  • infertility and gynecologic oncology

Or they may go into other areas, such as family planning, adolescent gynecology, or breast health. Most fellowships last about 2-4 years, and residents who don’t select a fellowship can go straight into practice.

Having trained in both obstetrics and gynecology, new physicians may choose one field or practice both fields as OB/GYNs.

  • Physicians who focus on obstetrics do not treat health issues outside pregnancy.
  • Physicians who focus on gynecology do not deliver babies or treat pregnant women. They conduct cancer screenings, treat urinary tract issues, and more.
  • OB/GYNs focus on both areas. Some OB/GYNs act as primary care physicians, in place of a family practitioner or internist.

OB/GYNs may practice in many settings, such as private practices, hospitals, academic settings, and community practices. Obstetricians often work long and unpredictable hours to accommodate the uncertain nature of pregnancy and delivery.

Final Thoughts 

The fields of gynecology and obstetrics are related in that they both focus on women’s health. However, obstetricians do not treat women’s health issues outside of pregnancy, while gynecologists do not deliver babies or treat pregnant women.

Most gynecologists and obstetricians choose to be specialized in both fields and are then known as OB/GYNs.

Between them, they are dedicated to helping you and your baby get the best possible care, from pre-conception through delivery and beyond.

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