If you’re at a party and telling someone what you do for a living, saying “I’m a perfusionist” might lead to some interesting conversations. “A percussionist? Like in a band?” “A perfectionist?” But while not everyone may know what a perfusionist does exactly, rest assured that this is an essential role in the healthcare world.
What Perfusionists Do
If you’re not familiar with the career path (yet), here’s the elevator pitch: perfusionists operate a heart-lung machine during surgery, keeping oxygenated blood flowing through the patient’s heart and body while the surgeon operates, and monitoring to make sure the patient maintains a consistent body temperature. It doesn’t get much more intense or life-saving than that—this is not a career for the weak of heart. Perfusionists are highly trained clinical professionals who assist surgeons and physicians in cardiovascular surgery, but also any surgery that requires cardiopulmonary bypass to maintain the patient’s vital signs during the procedure (including correction of heart defects, chemotherapy treatments, and emergency trauma cases).
If you’re looking for a healthcare career that calls for a steady hand and nerves of steel, and you’re willing to commit to the education and training necessary to be one of these highly specialized professionals, it could be a great career choice for you.
- It’s lucrative. Perfusionists are a high-paid bunch; the median salary for these professionals is $109,773.
- It’s stable. Perfusionists are a mainstay in the clinical healthcare world—one of the strongest (and continuing to grow) fields around right now, due to an aging population facing widespread cardiovascular issues and diseases. Because of the specialized training and education perfusionists need to have, this is not a field where people come and go frequently.
- It doesn’t require an advanced degree. To become a perfusionist, you need to have a bachelor’s degree, but can complete a training program/certificate rather than a getting a master’s. However, you can go on to get those advanced degrees in perfusion and cardiovascular studies after working in the field, if you want to develop your expertise.
- It’s a cutting-edge field. With technical advances improving surgical equipment all the time (including the heart-lung machines used to maintain patient stability during open-heart surgery), this is a field where the tech-minded can work with the most modern technology. Perfusionists can also go on to the equipment development field, refining and implementing new technologies to improve heart surgery and patient care.
The Qualifications You'll Need
As a perfusionist, you should expect to meet these requirements:
- A bachelor’s degree in a medical or science field (such as chemistry, biology, medical technology, etc.)
- Completion of a perfusionist certificate or master’s degree, which includes clinical training
- Strong anatomical knowledge
- Familiarity with surgical technology
In addition, perfusionists have a very specific set of skills:
- Extremely detail-oriented
- Strong organizational skills
- Ability to remain calm in emergency situations and throughout long surgeries
- Familiarity with the related perfusion/surgical equipment and the ability to troubleshoot as necessary
How to Make Your Decision
If you have the skills to become a perfusionist, you should think about whether this is the career path for you.
- Are you willing to work a 40-hour week, plus night/weekend/holiday shifts as necessary to accommodate being on call for surgery?
- Do you have the attention to detail that is required to maintain a person’s basic life functions while they’re in surgery?
- Do you handle crisis situations well?
- If you don’t have the level of undergrad science experience or advanced study in perfusion under your belt, are you willing to commit to a certificate or degree program?
- Are you mechanically inclined and able to work with sophisticated medical equipment with the right training?
- Are you willing to do ongoing training for recertification and staying on top of current medical technology trends?
If the gut check says “no” on any of these, then perhaps a different healthcare path would be better. But if you’re willing to embrace what can be a high-pressure, fast-moving medical career, then it might be the right option for you.
The Final Outlook
If the job meets your requirements and you meet the job’s requirements, this is a solid choice to make for the future. Because perfusionists are becoming more involved with procedures outside of the traditional heart surgery (like fixing congenital heart defects, treating heart disease, and chemotherapy). It’s also a career path that has great potential for perfusionists who eventually want to move out of the operating room. Trained perfusionists can become educators, equipment developers for private medical companies, or even medical equipment sales representatives. It’s a career path with a lot of different options for those willing to commit.
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