A complete guide on how to become a Cardiothoracic surgeon?

Physicians specialize in different fields and cardiothoracic surgery is one of them. This specialization offers a promising career but it is advised that before choosing it, you should do your research about the exact responsibilities that come along with it. In this guide, we will tell you how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon and outline all the basic requirements that are essential to moving forward with this career choice.

What is cardiothoracic surgery?

Surgeries performed on organs, tissues or bones within the chest cavity fall under the category of cardiothoracic procedures. Hence, a cardiothoracic surgeon will be responsible for carrying out operations on lungs, heart, esophagus and other surrounding organs, as and when needed.

In many parts of the world, cardiac and thoracic procedures are considered to be different specialities and hence categorized as separate fields. Cardiac surgeries refer to operations performed on the heart or related blood vessels whereas thoracic procedures are those involving the lungs, esophagus or other organs within the chest cavity. However, in the United States they are combined under the same head and referred to as cardiothoracic surgery.

What are the educational requirements for entering this profession?

In order to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, a certain set of qualifications must be acquired. Those are as follows:

  • Undergraduate degree

A 4-year undergraduate degree involving the study of calculus and science subjects namely; chemistry, biology and physics would be the first step towards a medical profession.

  • Medical degree

Once you have completed your undergraduate degree, you would need to attend a medical college in order to graduate as a professional. This would again take 4 years.

Along with other requirements, getting admission in a medical school demands a good academic record and satisfactory performance in the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT). This test can be taken in the third year during bachelor’s degree and registering for it costs somewhere around $320, as of 2020.

  • Residency training

After acquiring the relevant degrees, you would be required to complete residency training programs in order to get practical exposure and better understanding. Aspiring cardiothoracic surgeons must undergo a 5 year general residency program followed by a 2-3 year cardiothoracic surgery residency program.

Alternatively, they may opt for a 6-year-long integrated residency program.

  • Additional trainings

In order to excel in specific procedures that form sub-categories of cardiothoracic surgery, physicians may choose to take advanced training in any area of their choice. These trainings or fellowships are optional with the exception of one; those wishing to perform congenital heart surgeries essentially need to complete a 1-year-long fellowship.

Licensure Requirements

Obtaining a license from the relevant state authorities is mandatory before starting practice as an independent cardiothoracic surgeon. However, the requirements for receiving this permit may vary in each state.

Board certifications

Once cardiothoracic surgeons are done with their residencies, they may choose to get a relevant certification in their area of expertise, so as to enhance their credibility. A certification by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery is optional, but a benefit attached to it is that it improves the surgeon’s chances of getting hired by medical centres. Also, patients tend to prefer physicians who have acquired a certification.

These certifications from medical boards are credentials that guarantee the individual’s expertise. The qualifying criteria usually involves a written assessment including 250 MCQs and an oral test involving 12 case studies assigned by six different examiners.

cardiothoracic surgeon

What skills and characteristics a successful cardiothoracic surgeon must possess?

Besides gaining the required education and training, a successful cardiothoracic surgeon must possess certain skills and attributes to perform well in their chosen field.

Those are as follows:

  • A perfect coordination between their hand and eye movement
  • Manual dexterity
  • The ability to stay focussed despite multiple distractions
  • Having the potential to work continuously without taking a break

The surgeon must also exhibit leadership qualities such as:

  • Staying calm during critical situations and complicated surgeries
  • Performing to the best of their ability even under pressure
  • Motivating the surgical team before or during difficult procedures
  • The ability to predict any complications or hurdles by studying the patient’s health records
  • The willingness and capability to direct a team

It is a fact that all healthcare workers, especially those performing surgeries witness many unfortunate consequences on a routine basis. These include paralysis, loss of life and the accompanying emotional distress of the patient or his/her family members. Therefore, it is very important for these professionals to develop emotional resilience. It is essential that they cope with the stress and grief in a quick and timely manner so as to return to their job with undivided attention.

Cardiothoracic surgeons must also develop the temperament to deal with depressed patients, their attendants and members of their own team who may need counselling or support at times.

Salary prospects

Now that the question of how to become a cardiothoracic surgeon has been answered, it is evident that the journey is not easy. It takes about 15 years to complete the educational requirements and a significant investment in terms of the fee paid to acquire the relevant qualifications. Along with that the ongoing hard work, training and lengthy working hours after entering the field, deserve a fair compensation.

Currently, the average salary earned by a cardiothoracic surgeon in the US is $481,200. However, the amount earned by individual professionals may vary within a range of $385,700 – $603,100. The difference in income is attributed to factors like fellowships, certifications and experience.

The field of cardiothoracic surgery offers job stability and seems to have great career prospects for aspiring medical students. Besides, the satisfaction of having contributed towards saving someone’s life or improving it significantly can be emotionally rewarding. We hope that this article covered all the information you were looking for and proves to be helpful in making a career choice. However, if further clarity is required, we would recommend seeking guidance from a practicing cardiothoracic surgeon who may clear any doubts or queries with more relevant and practical examples.