With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, infectious disease doctors, also known as ID specialists, are in the health care spotlight more than ever. However, most people are not aware of what an infectious disease specialist is or what their job entails. An Infectious disease doctor is a board-certified MD or DO physician that treats acute and chronic infections caused by bacteria, parasites, fungi and viruses, including COVID-19. More specifically these fellowship-trained health care providers treat:
- Acute infections of unknown etiologies
- Chronic infections that requires constant maintenance care, such as hepatitis C and HIV
- Contagious viral infections such as COVID-19
- Infections that involves the blood, bone, or an implanted prosthesis
- Uncommon tick-borne, mosquito-borne or parasitic infections
- Prophylaxis of health conditions that may occur when traveling to a tropical location
- Infections that are resistant to common antibiotics
- Acute infections caused by multiple different organisms
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What Does An Infectious Disease Doctor Treat?
Infectious disease specialists treat a wide variety of acute and chronic medical infections and diseases. In the hospital setting, ID doctors commonly treat polymicrobial infections (infections involving more than one organism). Common bacterial infections may be caused by Staph aureus, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Bacterial infections can involve the bone (osteomyelitis), heart valves (endocarditis), blood (bacteremia) or prosthetic surgery implants. Other infections may be caused by viral or fungal organisms. Fungal infections can either be acute or chronic such as blastomycosis and aspergillosis. In clinics, ID specialists primarily treat chronic conditions such as HIV and hepatitis but may also follow up with previously hospitalized patients and see patients with lingering conditions or sub-acute infections.
How To Become An ID Doctor - Education And Training
The path to becoming an Infectious disease doctor is long, arduous, and requires a lot of work. The first step is getting accepted to medical school. This requires completion of pre-requisite courses, volunteering, shadowing, research and much more. Upon completion of medical school and receipt of a medical degree, a three year training residency in internal medicine is needed. Following internal medicine residency and passing internal medicine board examinations, a two year training fellowship in infectious diseases is completed. The final step to becoming an ID physician is passing the infectious disease board exam after which they can finally practice as ID specialists.
How Do ID Specialists Work With Other Physicians?
An Infectious disease specialist will work hand in hand with many other types of health clinic and hospital physicians. In the hospital, they work on a consulting basis. Hospitalists serve as the main health care practitioners that take care of hospitalized patients. However, when a patient's case is particularly complex, hospitalist physicians will consult with ID specialists. The hospitalist physician will still be the primary physician on the patient's care team however, ID specialists will also be able to help manage the patient's care. Usually, ID specialists will focus on the infectious etiology by adjusting antibiotic and antifungal medications while leaving other medical issues and symptoms to the hospitalist.
In the clinics, ID physicians usually treat patients that are referred to them or are follow up appointments of previously hospitalized patients. For example, a family medicine physician or GP (general practice) may notice a patient's elevated liver enzymes on a routine screening. This warrants further workup and screening for hepatitis by the primary care physician or GP. If a patient has a positive hepatitis test indicative of infection, they are referred to ID specialists. The ID physician will see the patient in clinic and order a further workup to determine the degree of liver damage, hepatitis viral load, and hepatitis viral strain. Following complete workup, the patient can begin treatment of their hepatitis. With new advancements in treatment of hepatitis, the virus is usually completely irradicated within two months of clinic treatment.
Infectious Disease Subspecialties
Following completion of a two year Infectious disease fellowship there are several subspecialty areas of focus that an ID specialist can train in:
- Tropical Medicine
- Public Health
- Pediatric Infectious Disease
- Transplant Infectious Disease
The Infectious Disease Specialist And COVID 19 Care
With specialized training in treating infections caused by fungi, bacteria, and viruses, infectious disease specialists are at the forefront of clinically treating COVID 19 infected patients. Additional training completed by ID specialists in epidemiology make them experts in the spread of the disease as well. In many hospitals nationwide, ID doctors are serving as heads of COVID 19 response teams. Nationally, ID doctors are working together to determine best practices and prescribing protocols for newly approved COVID 19 treatments such as remdesmavir, casirivimab, and imdevimab. As COVID 19 lingers on, ID specialists will continue to provide medical care to these Coronavirus infected patients while conducting clinical research on how to best support health and medical departments nationwide.
What Are Some Resources Where Can I Find Out More About The Infectious Disease Specialist?
There are many great medical organizations that can provide more information and health care resources about ID specialists including:
- The American College of Physicians also known as The ACP is an organization that focuses on the internal medicine specialty as well as all of the subspecialties of internal medicine. ACP also publishes clinical health care research. Find information and resources on the infectious disease specialty on the ACP website.
- Mayo Clinic has locations across the US and is known for its renowned medical health care. The ID Specialists at Mayo medical center conduct ongoing clinical research in many different health care facets. Mayo ID also houses several clinical trials. More information about ID at Mayo medical center may be found here: Mayo Clinic Webpage.
- The American Medical Association (AMA) is the largest association of physicians and medical students. AMA works to promote the advancement of the medical field as a whole, particularly in the legislature. More information about ID specialists published by the AMA may be found on the AMA Website.
- The Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) is the go-to organization for resources and information about the ID specialty. IDSA publishes guidelines for the clinical treatment of many different diseases and infectious. Additionally, IDSA is at the forefront of conducting medical clinical research. A link to the IDSA site may be found on the IDSA Website.
What Is The Study And Research Of Infectious Diseases Called?
Although the term is not commonly used, Infectiology is the term used to describe this health care specialty and it's definition includes the study and clinical treatment of infectious diseases. A medical educator that teaches infectious disease medicine can be referred to as an Infectiologist.
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Callie Torres is a Captain in the United States Air Force and a resident at Wash U/Barnes Jewish Hospital in St Louis. She is a freelance writer with many published medical articles as well as multiple peer-reviewed medical publications