Step by step guide to becoming a heart surgeon

A heart surgeon performs surgery on the primary blood vessels, such as the aorta, along with the heart. These medical professionals can undergo as much as a decade of training as they learn how to perform surgery and then specialize in heart surgery. The rate of compensation for a skilled surgeon can be very high, especially in a major urban area where his or her skills may be very much needed. While this profession is very male dominated, women can and do become heart surgeons, and female representation in this surgical specialty is on a slow rise.

What does a heart surgeon do?

Like other surgeons, those who operate on the heart are called in when another medical provider recognizes that a patient has a problem that must be corrected with surgery. The surgeon reviews the patient’s medical records and meets with him or her to perform an assessment. During the patient meeting, the surgeon can discuss the condition that brought the patient into the office, and discuss possible treatment options, including different approaches to surgery.

Heart surgeons can operate on congenital abnormalities and malformations, correcting these defects so that a patient will enjoy a more normal level of heart function. They can also correct damage to the heart caused by disease, performing procedures such as coronary artery bypass surgery, heart transplant, or pacemaker implantation. The surgeon’s goal is to get the patient’s condition stabilized so that he or she will be healthier.

Operating on the heart is extremely challenging, and the tools for operating on the heart, such as the bypass machine used during surgery, are relatively recent introductions to the medical procedure. As a result, heart surgery itself is a relatively recent surgical profession. It is also rapidly advancing, as surgeons develop new techniques. Historically, a heart surgeon performed primarily open surgeries, which were highly invasive and came with a high risk of complications and a long healing time. Today, he or she may be able to perform minimally invasive surgery, which is much less traumatic for the patient.

Within the specialty of heart surgery, a surgeon may opt to become a pediatric surgeon, working specifically with children. Pediatric surgeries are typically performed to address congenital heart abnormalities, and they can be quite complex, as there is less room for the surgeon to work, especially in a very young child. These specialists often work in children’s hospitals, which provide a range of health care services for children, and they may also be attached to teaching hospitals, where medical residents are provided with opportunities to work with patients and learn from some of the best doctors in the world.

What kind of skills are required?

A career as a cardiac surgeon requires excellent surgical skills and the professional skills necessary for working with patients and their families.

Fine Motor Skills

Heart surgeons must have excellent fine motor skills, as the intricate anatomy of the chest cavity makes precision an absolute must. Fine motor skills refers to the coordination of small muscles. These muscles, usually in the hands, control a variety of actions. When surgeons grasp scalpels and other surgical instruments, they must be able to maintain control of each instrument at all times. If a surgeon loses her grip on an instrument, the instrument can damage the patient’s heart muscle or blood vessels. Fine motor skills are also necessary for tying suture knots, threading thin catheters through the veins and arteries, inserting pacemakers and operating the controls used during minimally invasive surgical procedures.

Crisis Management

A heart surgeon must be able to identify and quickly respond to medical emergencies. Some of the complications that can occur during heart surgery include blood clots, bleeding, stroke, excessive blood loss and abnormal heart rhythm. Cardiac surgeons may have to perform resuscitation procedures; administer medications to restore normal heart rhythm; suture wounds to stop blood loss; perform internal cardiac massage; or apply clamps to damaged blood vessels. When managing these crises, heart surgeons must remain calm and use their reasoning skills to select the most appropriate intervention for each patient. They also use their problem-solving and decision-making skills when handling emergencies.

Diagnostic Skills

Heart surgeons use their diagnostic skills to identify complications during and after surgical procedures. They must listen carefully when patients describe their symptoms, as the cause of a complication is not always immediately apparent. They also must use established guidelines for conducting physical examinations and ordering diagnostic tests. A cardiac surgeon must be able to interpret test results and use scientific rules to determine the right treatment plan for each patient.

Communication Skills

Heart surgeons must communicate effectively with patients and colleagues. With patients, doctors must be able to explain highly technical medical concepts in words that a layperson can understand. When speaking with colleagues, a heart surgeon must be able to use technical terms properly and communicate in a concise manner. Good writing skills are also important, as heart surgeons write patient progress notes, operative reports, discharge summaries and correspondence. Meanwhile, social-perceptiveness skills help doctors understand why people react to situations the way they do. This helps defuse tense situations and resolve conflict within groups.

The steps to becoming a heart surgeon

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s Degree
  2. Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)
  3. Complete Medical School (4 Years)
  4. Earn a license
  5. Complete a residency