How To Become a Cardiothoracic Surgeon (With FAQs)

Updated June 30, 2023

In the medical field, many surgical specialties aim to improve and cure health conditions and diseases. One type of surgeon is a cardiothoracic surgeon, who specializes in treating issues in and around patients' hearts. If you have an interest in medical procedures and want to help those with heart conditions, becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon may be the right career path for you. 

In this article, we discuss what a cardiothoracic surgeon is, what they do and how you can become one.

Key takeaways:

  • A cardiothoracic surgeon is a doctor who completes surgeries in patients' thorax, or chest cavities, which includes their esophagus, heart and lungs to help cure diseases and treat life-threatening conditions.

  • To pursue this role, it's essential to earn a bachelor's degree in a relevant field, earn a competitive score on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and complete and graduate from medical school.

  • Aside from graduating from medical school, additional requirements for this career include completing a general surgeon residency, pursuing a fellowship and obtaining board certification.

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What is a cardiothoracic surgeon?

A cardiothoracic surgeon is a doctor who specializes in surgical procedures inside the thorax (the chest), which may involve the heart, lungs, esophagus and other parts of the chest. These medical professionals operate to cure diseases, such as coronary artery disease, occurring in organs, bony structures tissues that form the chest cavity.

What do cardiothoracic surgeons do?

A cardiothoracic surgeon performs surgery to treat their patients' heart conditions. There are four specialties s within the cardiothoracic surgery specialty:

  • Adult cardiac surgery

  • Children’s cardiac surgery

  • Congenital cardiac surgery

  • General thoracic surgery (disorders of the lungs and esophagus)

  • Heart and lung transplants surgery

A cardiovascular surgeon treats cases of heart failure, coronary artery disease, heart valve problems and arterial blockages. A congenital heart surgeon typically treats cardiac birth defects and heart issues in children.

Cardiothoracic surgeons have many responsibilities, including:

  • Providing evaluations and diagnoses

  • Providing patients with treatment plans

  • Considering alternative non-surgical treatment options

  • Meeting with patients before surgery to discuss their diagnosis and answer questions about procedures.

  • Installing cardiac support devices

  • Treating and treating tumors for patients with minimally invasive catheter-based procedures

  • Implanting pacemakers

  • Performing robotic cardiac surgery

  • Monitoring patients in intensive care

  • Updating patients after operations and track their recovery.

Related: Why Work in Health Care? 8 Reasons To Consider a Career in Health Care

How to become a cardiothoracic surgeon

Due to the extensive amount of education and experience required to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, the education process is one of the longest in the medical field, taking up to 16 years or more to complete. Here are the steps to become a cardiothoracic surgeon:

1. Earn an undergraduate degree

You first must earn a bachelor’s degree and meet the prerequisite courses needed to apply to an accredited medical school. It's best to pursue a degree in science with coursework focused on chemistry, biology and math. To prepare for medical school, students need to maintain an exceptional grade point average (GPA), usually above 3.5.

During your undergraduate years, you will need to take the Medical College Admission Test. The score will be part of your admission application to medical school.

2. Volunteer at hospitals and clinics

Volunteering at hospitals and clinics helps you gain experience and determine whether you are passionate about the medical field. The work experience can be beneficial for your resume as well. To find volunteer opportunities, contact your local hospitals to see if they have any available positions.

3. Take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT)

Passing the MCAT is a requirement for those who want to attend medical school. The MCAT covers four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social and Biological Foundations of Behavior and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills. The exam challenges your problem-solving skills, critical thinking, writing and scientific principle knowledge. To prepare for the MCAT, consider taking courses online or seeking a tutor.

4. Graduate medical school

Those interested in cardiothoracic surgery must earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. You need to complete four years of medical school to earn this degree. The first two years focus primarily on lectures and labs in a classroom setting and you may take an elective in surgery. The last two years include clinical practice so seek out surgery, cardiothoracic or other rotations that might be useful for a cardiothoracic career path.

When pursuing a career as a cardiothoracic surgeon, research medical schools that offer this specialization to better prepare you with the necessary knowledge.

Related: Requirements for Medical School

5. Become a licensed physician

You must become a licensed physician before continuing your post-medical school education. The requirements for licensure vary by state but most require that you pass the U.S. Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

6. Complete a general surgery residency

A general surgery residency typically combines clinical experience, research opportunities, conferences and operating room experience. The program usually lasts five years. During the first two years, you might study various critical areas of surgery, such as cardiovascular surgery. The following years include assisting and performing surgeries and pursuing opportunities for rotations in specialized surgery. Residencies are typically organized through your medical school.

7. Complete a cardiothoracic surgery fellowship

A thoracic surgery fellowship provides advanced training and education through hospital experience. It helps you gain more specialized experience with cardiothoracic surgery and meet case requirements set by the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS) for certification. A thoracic surgery fellowship typically takes two to three years to complete, but some professionals choose to partake in a six-year integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency for more experience.

8. Obtain board certification

You may consider pursuing a certification in thoracic surgery through the ABTS to provide you with more job opportunities. To earn certification, most prospective cardiothoracic surgeons first earn a state medical license, complete general and thoracic surgery residencies and earn satisfactory scores on a board exam. Other requirements for the certification often include completing additional medical education hours, submitting letters of reference, providing case summaries and passing an exam every 10 years.

Frequently asked questions

Here are answers to common questions about the career:

What are the subspecialties within cardiothoracic surgery?

After completing cardiothoracic training, you can pursue subspecialties within the field, including:

  • Congenital cardiac surgery

  • Transplant surgery

  • Thoracic aortic and endovascular surgery

Each requires additional education and training.

What might a cardiothoracic surgeon treat?

Coronary artery disease is one of the most common diseases treated by cardiothoracic surgeons. General thoracic surgeons typically treat lung cancer and diseases of the esophagus and chest wall. Congenital heart surgeons treat babies, children and adults with holes between their heart chambers or abnormal connections within the heart.

Other diseases and defects include:

  • Abnormal enlargement or aneurysms of the large arteries in the chestAortic valve disease

  • Atrial fibrillation

  • Atrial septal defects

  • Blockages of the arteries or heart valve

  • Coarctation of the aorta

  • Esophageal cancer

  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease

  • Heart failure

  • Hiatal hernias

  • Hypoplastic left or right heart syndrome

  • Leaking heart valves

  • Severe emphysema

  • Swallowing disorders such as achalasia

  • Transposition of the great arteries

  • Ventricular septal defects

What is the salary and job outlook?

A cardiothoracic surgeon makes a national average salary of $281,038 per year. Salaries vary depending on experience, education, skills and location.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for surgeons should remain similar to its current level with a projected job increase of 4% through 2029.

Related: How Much Do Surgeons Make?

What is the workplace environment?

Cardiothoracic surgeons often work in fast-paced environments. They typically work in hospital settings, medical schools or for the government. They perform both scheduled and emergency operations. Their presence may also be required at outpatient clinics, team meetings and ward rounds.

Shifts can be long and irregular, as they may be called into work whenever emergencies and the need for surgeries arise. Cardiothoracic surgeons may work 60 or more hours a week. They may perform two surgeries one day and five the next. A surgical procedure can take up to eight hours or more. This is a demanding career and knowing how to manage stress is extremely important.

What skills are helpful to become a cardiothoracic surgeon?

Here are some skills that may help a cardiothoracic surgeon perform their tasks effectively:

  • Hand-eye coordination: Cardiothoracic surgeons typically require excellent hand-eye coordination to perform surgery properly.

  • Ability to remain calm: Heart surgery is an incredibly delicate and intensive procedure, so having the ability to remain calm may help a surgeon operate well.

  • Attention to detail: Attention to detail can help surgeons properly diagnose and resolve patient issues without errors or delays.

  • Leadership and management: Cardiothoracic surgeons often work with teams during surgery, so being able to lead and guide others when overseeing operations is crucial.

  • Physical stamina: Cardiothoracic surgeons often work in operating rooms for long periods and stand for the entire duration without a break.

Career development tips

If you are considering becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon, here are some ways you can optimize your experience:

  • Publish case reports and research: To optimize your medical school experience, consider writing and publishing case reports and research.

  • Network: Having reliable references from your field experience can help increase your chances of getting a job. Consider seeking a mentor or attending networking events.

  • Learn related medical specialties: Cardiothoracic surgeons often collaborate with cardiology, pulmonary and renal teams when managing patients post-surgery and should learn about other specialties so they understand the programs certain teams recommend for patients.

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Cardiothoracic surgeon vs. cardiologist

While both cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiologists specialize in heart issues, the two positions vary. A cardiologist is a medical professional who works with surgeons to diagnose patients and decide if they need surgery. Cardiothoracic surgeons and cardiologists may collaborate to treat irregular heartbeat problems, with a cardiologist providing treatment options and recommending them to a cardiothoracic surgeon for surgery.

Related: Guide To Becoming a Cardiologist

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