If you’re interested in joining an in-demand surgical specialty, read on to learn more about how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon.
According to history, the human heart was often considered to be a no-go zone when it came to surgery. This organ that’s responsible for sustaining life was considered far too risky to operate on.
That was until daring surgeons took it upon themselves to begin experimenting. One such surgeon, Dr. Dwight Harken, began experimenting on animals to figure out how to safely remove shrapnel from soldiers’ hearts. After several unsuccessful attempts, he finally mastered his technique and had a 100% success rate.
Since Harken’s technique was invented, the field of cardiothoracic surgery has greatly evolved and continues to advance. Today, there are countless procedures done on the heart everyday and growing research to extend this list.
If you’d like to be part of this fast-growing specialty, this guide will go over how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, what the job entails, different cardiothoracic subspecialties, and more!
Cardiothoracic surgeons operate on all of the organs inside your chest, including your heart, lungs, esophagus, and trachea. These surgeons diagnose patients and help create effective treatment plans for them, including surgeries.
The most common types of disease and issues that cardiothoracic surgeons treat are:
The most common surgeries performed by cardiothoracic surgeons to treat these diseases are:
There are also various minimally invasive procedures these surgeons perform for more uncomplicated issues.
Now that you know the myriad of complex procedures these professionals perform, you might be asking, “how long does it take to become a cardiothoracic surgeon?”
These surgeons require extensive training to perform these intricate procedures. This training involves multiple degrees and certifications which take at least 15 years to complete. These 15 years are broken down as follows:
The very first step to become a cardiothoracic surgeon is completing an undergraduate degree from an accredited university. While you may choose any major you’re interested in, you’ll have to complete certain prerequisites to be eligible to apply to medical school.
Regardless of the major you pursue, ensure you maintain high grades to increase your chances of getting into your dream medical school. You should also take challenging and diverse courses to prove your academic talent.
Getting into medical school is challenging. To give yourself the best shot of acceptance, you’ll want to create a stellar application. Substantial clinical and shadowing experience is one way to strengthen your application and impress the admissions committee.
As you near the end of your undergraduate degree, you should begin preparing to write the MCAT. The summers of your sophomore or junior year are typically the best time periods to study for and write the exam.
Depending on the schools you’d like to apply to, you should have an idea of your target MCAT score. Create a comprehensive study plan with reliable resources to help you reach this score.
How you perform on the MCAT will play a large role in the admissions committee’s decision, so it’s essential you put in the work to achieve a competitive score.
After successfully completing your first degree, the next degree you’ll have to obtain is a Doctor of Medicine (MD). This degree will also take four years to complete, but will be much more extensive.
You’ll spend these years learning the fundamentals of medicine and patient care, putting this knowledge to use during your clinical rotations.
As overwhelming as medical school will seem, it’s essential you keep your grades up to match with a strong surgical residency post graduation!
During and after medical school you’ll have to complete your USMLE exams to receive the licensing to practice medicine independently.
The majority of students complete the first step of these exams after their second year of medical school, the second step during their third or fourth year, and the final step after they’ve graduated.
These exams are essential to proceed to the final steps of your journey to becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, so it’s crucial you spend an adequate amount of time preparing for them!
Match day is one of the most nerve-wracking and memorable days of a medical students’ life. Maintaining strong grades and connections throughout the previous steps of your journey can help assure you receive good news and are matched with your top residency.
This part of the journey will take at least five years to complete. During these five years, you will learn how to perform surgical procedures in several types of specialities, including cardiothoracics.
The final step before you can officially become a cardiothoracic surgeon is to complete a cardiothoracic fellowship. This fellowship will provide you with specialized training in cardiothoracics. Depending on the program you join, this step will take two to three years to complete.
While these surgeons are trained to perform all cardiothoracic surgeries, many of them choose to specialize in one of the following areas:
These surgeons focus on the heart and the surrounding vessels. Some of them choose to specialize in pediatric cardiac surgery.
Congenital heart defects are those that people are born with. While the majority of these are found during or closely after birth, some go undetected until adulthood. As such, these surgeons typically work on both children and adults.
Thoracic surgery is largely dominated by operations on the lungs, chest wall, diaphragm, and esophagus. The most common types of disorders seen by thoracic surgeons are malignant disease requiring resection or the removal of part or all of a chest organ.
Transplants are some of the most complicated surgeries to perform, which is why these procedures cover a subspeciality of their own. Transplant surgeons are responsible for replacing all organs, including the heart.
The final factor to discuss when exploring how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon is their salary and career outlook.
Considering the years of training involved in becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, and the often life-saving procedures they perform, it’s no surprise that these professionals are well-paid. The average cardiothoracic surgeon salary is around $400,000 a year.
This salary can go up depending on your experience and location. Since new procedures and technologies are always emerging in this specialty, surgeons willing to keep up-to-date with these procedures can also earn more because they can offer a wider range of options to their patients and employers.
There is currently a shortage of cardiothoracic surgeons that is projected to dip to critical levels if more medical students don’t join this speciality.
In fact, if there isn’t a significant increase in these professionals, current cardiothoracic surgeons will have to increase their caseload by an impossible 121% to keep up with the needs of the nation!
Hospitals have and will continue to have the highest demand for cardiothoracic surgeons, but these professionals often also work in private practices.
For any remaining questions about how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, read on to find your answers.
It will take at least 15 years to join this profession: four years to complete an undergrad, four years to complete an MD, five years to complete a general surgery residency, and at least two years to complete a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship.
Yes, you’ll be met with fierce competition throughout your journey to becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. Not only are top-ranking medical schools challenging to get into, but residencies and fellowships have even fewer spots available.
Throughout your studies you’ll have to maintain high grades to give yourself the best chances of gaining acceptance into these difficult programs.
While you’ll need a lot of technical skills to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, these will take time, training, and practice to develop. Aside from the learnable skills you’ll need to perform surgeries, you should already possess the following skills:
Along with these skills, it’s essential you have a passion for this medical specialty! Aside from the 15 years it’ll take to learn about cardiothoracics, you’ll be expected to continue learning about emerging procedures to provide the best care to your patients.
While the exact hours a cardiothoracic surgeon depends on their practice and work setting, it’s not uncommon for these surgeons to work more than 60 hours a week!
Cardiologists do not perform surgeries. While they understand and are able to diagnose heart disease, they can only assist with non-surgical treatment plans. While some cardiologists perform intravenous catheter procedures, they do not have the specialized training to perform more complex procedures.
On the other hand, cardiothoracic surgeons perform various operations, both simple and complex. Cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons typically work together to create the most effective treatment plan for their patients.
With how far cardiothoracic surgery has come since the creation of the Harken technique, one can only assume this speciality will continue to advance and push the limits of what’s considered possible.
After going over the lengthy process required to join this profession, you should have a better idea if you’re up for the task and have what it takes to join this evolving speciality!