The term “OB-GYN” refers to the practice of both obstetrics and gynecology or to the doctor who practices both fields of medicine. Some doctors choose to practice only one of these fields. For example, gynecologists only practice gynecology, which focuses on women’s reproductive health.

Obstetricians only practice obstetrics, or the area of medicine associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Here’s a closer look at what these specialists do and when you should see one.

What is an obstetrician?

Obstetricians provide surgical care for women during pregnancy and childbirth. They also handle postnatal care.

Some obstetricians choose to specialize in maternal-fetal medicine (MFM). This branch of obstetrics focuses on pregnant women who have chronic health problems or abnormal issues that arise during pregnancy. Because of this, MFM doctors are considered to be high-risk experts.

You may see an MFM doctor if you have a chronic health condition that may affect your pregnancy. Some women choose to meet with these doctors for care before conceiving to help develop a plan for pregnancy.

Education and training requirements

To become an obstetrician, you must first take certain premedical coursework and earn a bachelor’s degree. Then, you must take and pass the Medical College Admissions Test to be eligible to enroll in medical school.

After completing four years of medical school, you must complete a residency program to gain further experience. Residents spend many hours at an office or hospital helping respond to emergencies, births, and other related procedures.

If you choose to specialize in MFM, you must complete an additional two to three years of training.

Once your training is complete, you must take a certification exam to become certified through the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

What conditions do obstetricians treat?

Women usually first see obstetricians for routine prenatal care. The initial appointment typically occurs approximately eight weeks after your last menstrual period. You’ll then see the doctor approximately once a month throughout the duration of your pregnancy.

Obstetricians also treat women with high-risk pregnancy both during and after pregnancy:

You may have a high-risk pregnancy if you’re pregnant and you:

  • have a chronic health condition
  • are over age 35
  • are carrying multiple babies
  • have a history of miscarriage, preterm labor, or cesarean delivery
  • engage in certain lifestyle choices, such as smoking and drinking
  • develop certain complications during pregnancy that affect you or baby

Obstetricians also treat:

  • ectopic pregnancy
  • fetal distress
  • preeclampsia, which is characterized by high blood pressure
  • placental abruption, or when the placenta detaches from the uterus
  • shoulder dystocia, or when a baby’s shoulders get stuck during childbirth
  • uterine rupture
  • prolapsed cord, or when the umbilical cord becomes trapped during delivery
  • obstetrical hemorrhage
  • sepsis, which is a life-threatening infection

Find out more: Controlling blood pressure in preeclampsia »

What procedures do obstetricians perform?

The procedures and surgeries obstetricians perform also may differ from the ones that gynecologists do. Aside from routine appointments and labor and delivery services, obstetricians also perform the following:

  • cervical cerclage
  • dilation and curettage
  • cesarean delivery
  • vaginal delivery
  • episiotomy, or a cut at the opening of the vagina to aid in vaginal delivery
  • circumcision
  • forceps and vacuum deliveries

If you have a high-risk pregnancy, your obstetrician may offer you certain tests. This includes:

  • an ultrasound
  • an amniocentesis to determine your baby’s sex and identify certain genetic abnormalities
  • cordocentesis, or umbilical blood sampling, to evaluate for certain infections, congenital conditions, or blood disorders
  • cervical length measurement to assess your risk of preterm labor
  • lab testing for a variety of conditions
  • lab testing to measure fetal fibronectin, which helps them determine your risk of preterm labor
  • a biophysical profile, which can help them assess your baby’s well-being through both heart rate monitoring and ultrasound

The obstetrician also attends deliveries, vaginal and otherwise. If you need an induction or cesarean delivery, an obstetrician will oversee the procedures. They’ll also perform any related surgery. They may also perform a circumcision on a male baby after birth if you request it.

When should you see an obstetrician?

You should make an appointment to see an obstetrician if you’re pregnant or thinking of becoming pregnant. They can provide you with prenatal care and help you plan for your pregnancy.

You may wish to meet with a variety of doctors before choosing one to take over your care. During your search, you may wish to ask each obstetrician the following:

  • What tests do you require during pregnancy?
  • Do you attend the birth or the physician on call?
  • How do you monitor the baby during labor?
  • What are your thoughts on natural childbirth?
  • When do you perform cesarean deliveries?
  • What is your cesarean delivery rate?
  • Do you routinely perform episiotomies? If so, in what situations?
  • At what point in pregnancy do you start to consider induction?
  • What is your specific policy around labor induction?
  • What procedures do you perform on the newborn? When do you perform them?
  • What type of postpartum follow-up care do you provide?

Once you find a doctor you like, schedule your prenatal appointments early and often for the best outcome.

You should also see your obstetrician for postnatal care. This enables you to:

  • chat about birth control options, such as the pill or intrauterine device
  • get clarification on anything that happened during pregnancy or childbirth.
  • discuss any issues you may be experiencing while adjusting to motherhood or any concerns about postpartum depression
  • follow up on any medical issues you encountered during pregnancy, such as gestational diabetes or high blood pressure.
  • ensure your vaccinations are up to date

Keep reading: Types of doctors for labor and delivery »