If you want a highly-specialized medical career that enables you to play a critical role in heart surgery, you can consider a career as a perfusionist. The perfusion or extracorporeal circulation procedure in cardiac operations refer to the use of a very specialized heart-lung machine to emulate the function of the heart as it pumps oxygenated blood to the rest of the patient’s body. The reason why a heart needs to be replaced artificially while the surgery is in progress is because the surgeon can only operate if the heart is still.
As a perfusionist, you are integral to the success of cardiac surgery. You will be responsible for operating the heart-lung machine—technically called the extracorporeal circulation and autotransfusion equipment—that would temporarily take over the circulatory and respiratory function of the patient. While the surgeon works on the still heart, you will be managing the patient’s physiological and metabolic functions. It will also be your role to administer the drug that will actually stop the beating of the patient’s heart.
In simplest terms, your job is to halt a patient’s heart and then keep the patient alive throughout the entire process through the use of the artificial blood pump. Cardiac surgeries normally take a little over three hours and during this time you will be constantly monitoring this machine. You will be measuring vital parameters and making the necessary adjustments to ensure that the patient remains alive.
As a perfusionist, your job begins before and after the surgical operation. Before surgery, you assemble the heart-lung machine and see to it that it is working properly. After surgery, you will also continue to monitor the device as it may still be used to support the patient while his heart is still recovering.
To be able to do this job well, you will need to possess technical knowledge in operating very complex equipment—something that you will learn when you undergo a training program. You also need to have a keen eye for detail since you will be monitoring the status of the patient and any small change can necessitate machine adjustments. You also need to possess excellent communication skills as you will need to constantly communicate with the other members of the surgical team so that everyone gets updated on the condition of the patient.
One reason to pursue a career as a perfusionist is the fact that it puts you in a position to give a patient a new lease on life. A lot of people go into a healthcare career to save people’s lives and as a perfusionist, you are literally responsible for sustaining the life of a patient artificially while the surgeon does his magic on the operating table. Nothing could be more meaningful than knowing that this job lies in your hands. Besides, it’s also a career that has a positive employment outlook in the coming years. It pays very well, too.
Perfusionist Work Environment
Perfusionists typically work in hospitals. They can also be employed by surgeons or a group practice. They usually work for 40 hours each week but if they are on-call, they may work on weekends, holidays and evenings. In facilities where numerous heart surgeries are carried out regularly, perfusionists may work in shifts so that there is always someone on deck in the event that emergency surgical operations need to be performed.
Perfusionists typically spend most of their working hours in the operating room since they are most needed during surgery. They may also be working in the intensive care unit of medical centers to monitor patients still on heart-lung machines after an operation.
There are no official government figures on the salary of perfusionists since the US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not gather data on this occupation. The American Society of Extra-Corporeal Technology (AmSECT) has reported that on the average, perfusionists receive a yearly base salary of $60,000 to $75,000.
Certified perfusionists that have worked for two to five years can expect to earn $70,000 to $90,000 each year while those with six to ten years of experience are paid anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000. The AmSECT estimated that perfusionist managers earn well over $100,000 annually.
Perfusionist Career Outlook
Again, there are no projected employment earnings gathered by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics on perfusionists so we turn again to the American Society for Extra-Corporeal Technology to determine the outlook for this profession. There are currently around 3,700 perfusionists in the United States and the AmSECT expects this number to grow as the aging population continues to increase.
The need for open heart surgery is higher among the elderly which will spur the demand for perfusionists. Another factor that will contribute to the demand for perfusionists is the incorporation of perfusion procedures in other kinds of surgical operations. Perfusionists will be needed to assist in surgeries to correct congenital heart defects, emergency trauma cases, chemotherapy treatments and the treatment of other kinds of heart ailments.
The educational journey for a career as a perfusionist starts with a bachelor’s degree. Although there are no strict requirements for the undergraduate degree that aspiring perfusionists must take, most programs prefer candidates that have majored in chemistry, anatomy, biology, physiology, medical technology, nursing or respiratory therapy.
After graduating from a four-year bachelor’s degree, aspiring perfusionists will need to take a perfusion certificate program. These training programs teach students topics like heart-lung bypass for adults, children and infants, heart surgery and autotransfusion. Focus is given on hands-on clinical training of perfusion procedures so that they will know what to expect in a real operating room scenario.
Getting certified is necessary for a perfusionist to get hired. To obtain the Certified Clinical Perfusionist certification, candidates must take and pass the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion exam composed of two parts:
Perfusion Basic Science Exam
Clinical Applications in Perfusion Exam
In order to take the Perfusion Basic Science Exam, the candidate must have obtained or currently taking an accredited perfusion education program and completed at least 75 clinical procedures. Those who want to get the Clinical Applications in Perfusion Exam must have finished 50 more procedures (in addition to the first 75) and be a graduate of a perfusion education program.
Take note that a lot of hospitals will still hire perfusionists who have taken and passed the first part of the test but they should finish and pass the second portion of the test if they want to continue with their employment. Perfusionists must renew their certification every three years by complying with the requirements set forth by the governing authorities.