Last Updated: 03/17/15
A pulmonologist is an internal medicine physician that specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases that affect the lungs and bronchial tubes, as well as the upper respiratory tract including the nose, pharynx and throat. Sometimes these conditions can also affect the chest, so pulmonologists are also specially trained in conditions and diseases of the chest, like asthma, pneumonia, tuberculosis, complicated chest infections and emphysema. Like other physician specialties, as a pulmonologist you can sub-specialize in one of several areas, including: severe allergies, sleep disorders or critical care medicine, where they will treat most of their patients in the ICU.
While most major surgical procedures done in the chest and upper respiratory system are performed by thoracic surgeons, pulmonologists can perform various specialized procedures in order to obtain samples of chest wall lining or the lungs. They also perform angiographic visualization, a procedure in which dye is injected into the pulmonary arteries to view the blood vessels inside the lungs. Some of the other things you are likely to do as a pulmonologist include:
- Treat hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease as well as a wide range of conditions that can affect the functioning of the lung, brain, and gastrointestinal tract.
- Advise surgeons of the risk status of their patients and recommend interventions to minimize risk.
- Provide immunizations to protect patients from diseases that are preventable
- Provide consulting services to other physicians
- Conduct research to test or develop new medications or methods of treatment
As a pulmonologist you might work in a hospital, medical school, research facility, clinic or private practice. If you work in the research sector or private practice you will be more likely to work a regular 40 hour week than if you work in a hospital. You can expect to work closer to 50 or 60 hours a week if you work in a hospital that requires you to be on call or if you do lots of consults.
In order to become a pulmonologist, you will have to complete a four year medical school program followed by a three year residency in internal medicine. You will then have to complete one to three years of a pulmonology fellowship training program. Also, before being able to practice you will need to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) and most internists must become board certified in internal medicine, which you can obtain by passing the board exams.
According to a 2011 Medscape physician compensation survey, the mean income for pulmonologists is approximately $242,000, which is a bit higher than it was in 2010. Of the 25 specialties surveyed, pulmonologists were among the middle ranks in compensation. The same report showed that more than one third of pulmonologists earned $200,000 to $299,000. About 13% earned $400,000 or more, while 14% earned $100,000 or less. How much you make can depend on what type of facility you work in and what area of the country you work in. Currently, pulmonologists in the South Central region earn the most with a mean income of $328,000 in 2011. The next-highest earners were physicians in the West with a mean income of $280,000.
The job outlook for pulmonologist, and any other physician or surgeon, is very good. The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects a 22% growth in physician and surgeon jobs. This is especially true for pulmonology as the baby boom generation reaches and passes retirement age, they will have a greater need for mechanical ventilation, intensive care and the specialized care of pulmonologists.