What is a pulmonologist?

June 26, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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Trouble breathing is one of the most common reasons people go to the emergency room. The respiratory system, also known as the pulmonary system, is complex and can be affected by other organs. A pulmonologist is a medical doctor who specializes in preventing and treating lung disease and breathing problems. 

Types of disorders pulmonologists treat

There are many different types of diseases and injuries that can make breathing difficult, including both acute and chronic conditions. Some diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), involve damage to the lungs. Other times, breathing trouble may not be caused by lung disorders, but by problems with other organs, such as the heart. Diseases of the kidneys, liver and heart can all lead to having problems breathing.

Infectious diseases, including pneumonia and influenza, may also lead to respiratory issues that require the attention of a pulmonologist. Certain injuries, including trauma to the chest and rib fractures, could make breathing difficult. Since the brain also plays a role in breathing, certain types of head injuries may interfere with a person’s ability to breath.

Work performed

Pulmonologists diagnose the causes of breathing problems. Diagnostic tests performed by a pulmonologist may include bronchoscopies, which involve inserting a tube with a camera into the airway. The camera allows the doctor to view the lungs, remove mucus and obtain a tissue sample if needed for a biopsy. Pulmonary function tests, which measure the efficiency of the lungs, may also be ordered or performed by a pulmonary doctor.

If the cause of a breathing problem has already been identified, a pulmonologist will develop a treatment plan. Treatment plans may include medication, surgery and, in emergency situations, placing the patient on a respirator in order to help with breathing.

Work environment and salary

Patients who have breathing problems may be in any area of the hospital, including the emergency room, intensive care units and hospital floors. Pulmonologists often work all hours, including overnight. In some cases, a pulmonary doctor will work specific hours and, in addition, will need to be on call in case of emergencies. Breathing emergencies can happen quickly and may be life threatening. Pulmonologists need to be able to handle stress, demonstrate leadership and multitask.

Salaries for pulmonologists will vary by experience and place of employment. In the United States, the average salary for a pulmonary doctor was $240,000 a year according to a 2013 compensation report conducted by Medscape.

The road to becoming a pulmonologist

High school students who are considering becoming pulmonologists should take science classes that include anatomy and physiology. Earning a four year degree, preferably in premed, chemistry, or biology, takes you one step closer to becoming a pulmonary doctor.

After scoring well on the medical school entrance exams, four years of medical school come next. A three year internal medicine residency needs to be completed after graduation. Board certification in internal medicine is required in order to become a pulmonologist.

Pulmonology is a subspecialty of internal medicine, so after residency, a two year fellowship in pulmonary medicine is required. After completing the fellowship, a physician can apply and take an exam to become board certified in pulmonary medicine.


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