Otolaryngologists are physicians that specialize in the treatment and management of diseases and disorders of the ear, nose, throat, and related bodily structures.
Otolaryngologists are commonly referred to as ENT (ear, nose, and throat) physicians and provide both medical and surgical care.1
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), otolaryngology is the oldest medical specialty in the US.2 Otolaryngological diseases and disorders can affect anyone, regardless of age or gender.
In the US in 2010, an estimated 20 million visits were made to non-federally employed otolaryngologists. Most visits were made by adults aged 45-64 (32%), although 20% of visits were made by people aged under 15.3
The most common reasons for patients to visit an otolaryngologist were problems with their hearing, earache or ear infection, or nasal congestion. Most otolaryngological conditions can be diagnosed through physical examination, meaning that otolaryngologists have a hands-on approach to patient care.2
What is otolaryngology?1,4
Otolaryngology is actually an abbreviation; the full term is otorhinolaryngology, derived from the Greek words for ear (oto), nose (rhino) and throat (laryn). The study of otolaryngology has expanded over the past 50 years and now comprises a regional specialty of the head and neck.
Otolaryngologists specialize in treating conditions of the ears, nose, throat, head, and neck.
- Ears - Around 15% of adults in America (37.5 million people) reports some degree of hearing loss. The treatment of hearing disorders is unique to otolaryngologists. Men are more likely than women to report hearing loss.34
- Nose - chronic sinusitis is one of the most common medical complaints in the US, with around 28.5 million adults diagnosed with the illness (around 12.1% of adults in the US).35 Management of the nasal cavity also includes allergies and sense of smell.
- Throat - the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the larynx and esophagus are the responsibility of otolaryngologists and include voice and swallowing.
- Head and neck - diseases and disorders affecting the face, head and neck can also be treated by otolaryngologists, including infectious diseases, traumas, deformities and cancers. There may be some crossover in this area with other specialists, such as dermatologists and oral and maxillofacial surgeons.
There are seven areas of expertise within the field of otolaryngology. Some otolaryngologists will undertake additional study to specialize in one of them and subsequently limit their services solely to the management of their chosen specialty:1
- Allergy - treatment of the condition by medication, immunotherapy or avoidance of triggers
- Facial plastic and reconstructive surgery - performing surgery on the face, neck or ear for cosmetic, functional or reconstructive purposes
- Head and neck - treatment or removal of (cancerous or noncancerous) tumors of the head and neck, including the nose and throat
- Laryngology - management of disorders of the throat
- Otology/neurotology - management of disorders of the ear, including nerve pathway disorders affecting hearing and balance
- Pediatric otolaryngology - treatment of ENT diseases in children, including birth defects and developmental delays
- Rhinology - management of disorders of the nose and sinuses.
To become certified by the American Board of Otolaryngology (ABOto), applicants must complete 4 years of college and then 4 years of medical school.
A residency program of 5 further years must then be completed. At least 9 months of this will be comprised of basic surgical, emergency medicine, critical care, and anesthesia training within the first year; including at least 48 months of progressive education in the specialty. The final year of the program must be spent as a chief resident within an approved institution.
After this training, ABOto examinations can then be taken, consisting of a written exam and an oral exam. Otolaryngologists can also opt to continue their studies and complete a fellowship - a 1 or 2 year course of extensive training focused on one of the seven subspecialties detailed above.
On the next page we look at the common conditions treated by otolaryngologists. On the final page we discuss procedures performed by otolaryngologists and when you should consider seeing an otolaryngologist.