When medical students begin to consider a career in otolaryngology, they are often met with blank stares from their family, friends, and significant others. It is a specialty that is often difficult to pronounce, much less to understand its scope and subject matter. These physicians are not just “ENT” (ear, nose, and throat) doctors. Technically, the official name of this field of medicine is “otorhinolaryngology” or “otolaryngology—head and neck surgery.” This specialty involves both the medical and surgical care of all structures related to the head and neck (basically, above the clavicles and excluding the brain and the eye). It is, quite simply, the best surgical subspecialty within medicine.
If you like treating patients with complex diseases of the oral cavity, larynx, sinus, ears, throat, and other parts of the head and neck, then take a closer look at this specialty. Otolaryngology is perfect for those students who prefer working with their hands and dealing with a lot of “action” in their medical career. Do you see yourself as a specialist? Are you a perfectionist? Do you like to solve a piece of a medical puzzle? Then perhaps the intricate anatomy, physiology, and pathology of otolaryngology are all for you.
Formally established in 1924, the American Board of Otolaryngology is one of the oldest medical specialty boards in the country. Prior to its founding, specialists of the head and neck were responsible for treating both otolaryngologic and ophthalmologic diseases. In 1978, to better reflect the increase in breadth of this complex field, the board was renamed “otolaryngology—head and neck surgery.” This change came about because skull base surgery, oncology, cosmetic and reconstructive facial plastic surgery, and other forms of head and neck surgery became part of the otolaryngologist's realm of expertise. Although most physicians and patients still refer to these surgeons simply as “ENTs,” this specialty is, in reality, so much more than ears, noses, and throats. Otolaryngologists are also experts in the management of head and neck tumors (eg, thyroid and salivary gland), chronic pediatric infections (tonsillectomies, adenoidectomies, and tympanostomy tube placement), facial trauma and cosmetic deformities, and diseases of the airway and phonation (laryngoscopy, bronchoscopy, palate surgery for snoring and sleep apnea).
Otolaryngologists are unique among surgical specialists because they are trained in both surgery and medicine. As a branch of surgery, otolaryngology essentially has no equivalent counterpart in medicine. This is in contrast to their fellow surgeons such as urologists (nephrology), neurosurgeons (neurology), cardiac surgeons (cardiologists), and thoracic surgeons (pulmonology). As a result, the practitioner must learn to treat patients medically as well as surgically. Otolaryngologists do not need to refer patients to other physicians when surgery is needed and, therefore, can offer the most appropriate care for each patient. The downside is that patients will come to clinic with relatively benign, nonsurgical complaints, such as sore throats. Often, general practicing otolaryngologists refer specialized cases such as cochlear implants, facial cosmetics, revision sinus surgery, or ...