Explore a career as a perfusionist

September 29, 2014

Article by Global Pre-Meds
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What does a perfusionist do?

Get up close during a surgical procedure When surgeons perform procedures in the operating room, they have a support team of medical professionals with them. Every one of the team members has a specific, equally crucial role to play to ensure that the procedure is safe and successful. A perfusionist is one of the members of this support team. This is the person who is responsible for operating the equipment that keeps a patient alive while they are undergoing any complex procedure that involves stopping their heart or lungs for the duration of the operation; for example, open heart surgery. When the heart or lungs are stopped, a perfusionist operates the machines that keep oxygen flowing and blood circulating to the vital organs such as the brain, liver, kidneys and intestine.


Detailed job description

As part of prepping for the surgery, the perfusionist confers with the surgeon and other associated medical professionals about which equipment is to be used and how it is going to be used for that particular procedure. During the procedure, the perfusionist vigilantly monitors the different metabolic and circulatory parameters such as respiratory rate, heart rate, blood gases and blood pressure to ensure that the patient remains in a risk-free zone.

In addition to operating the machinery, this professional also regularly updates the surgical team and anaesthesiologists about the patient’s circulatory status. Should the patient’s circulation become compromised during the procedure, the perfusionist may be required to take corrective measures and administer any essential medicines or blood products through the heart-lung machine. This would be done under direction of the surgeon.

The role of a perfusionist extends beyond the operating room to manage highly specialised machines and equipment in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) that are used for patients with impaired heart and lung function.

Without the highly specialised knowledge and skills of perfusionists, many critical medical procedures would just not be possible.


Work setting

As a perfusionist you would primarily work in operating rooms in a hospital or surgical centres during heart and lung surgeries. Depending on the work place and the client’s condition, you would also work in the ICU when necessary.

Work hours could vary a great deal as you will be required to answer the call of surgical and medical emergencies irrespective of what time of the day it may be.


Education & training

To be able to work as a perfusionist you will need to complete an accredited perfusion-training program, which could take a minimum of four years. Another option is to pursue a certificate program, which involves first completing a four-year bachelor’s degree and then applying to the perfusion certificate program. 

Perfusion training programs cover topics such as heart surgery, heart-lung bypass for paediatric, neonatal and adult patients, long-term use of heart-lung machines and how to monitor patients who are on these machines. You will also learn techniques for autotransfusion where a patient’s blood is transfused back to the patient themselves.  

During your training you will be required to complete extensive hands-on clinical training, which will involve performing a specified number and variety of clinical perfusion procedures. This experiential learning is crucial for perfusionists who must be able to respond efficiently to a wide range of situations that are likely to occur in the operating room.