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What You Need To Know About Being a Perfusionist

February 28, 2021

Individuals with a strong background or interest in science and cardiovascular health might enjoy a career working as a perfusionist. Perfusionists are an important part of a cardiovascular surgical team, maintaining the heart and lungs of patients during heart surgery. Perfusionists consult with the surgical team, making recommendations on what type of equipment to use during surgery. In this article, we discuss the responsibilities and work environment of a perfusionist, the expected salary and the requirements to become one.

What is a perfusionist?

A perfusionist is a medical professional who works closely with the cardiovascular surgical team, monitoring and operating the cardiopulmonary bypass machine ("heart-lung machine") during heart surgery. The perfusionist assists the surgeon by focusing on the heart and lungs during procedures, pushing oxygen and blood throughout the patient's body. A perfusionist also monitors the vitals of the patient during the surgery, making any recommendations to the team.

Perfusionists may perform several procedures, including:

  • Cardiopulmonary bypass
  • Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation
  • Isolated limb perfusion

Perfusionists learn specific skills required to complete these important tasks during their academic and clinical training.

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What does a perfusionist do?

The individual responsibilities of a perfusionist depend on the patient and their needs. A perfusionist often has the following responsibilities:

  • Operating the heart-lung machine during heart surgery
  • Collaborating with the surgeon to ensure they use the right device
  • Connecting the patient to the machine
  • Monitoring the patient's status during surgery
  • Updating the surgical team on the patient's status
  • Administering blood products and medications
  • Monitoring and maintaining equipment
  • Assisting with blood and oxygen circulation for long-term patients

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Average salary of a perfusionist

The average salary of a perfusionist is $23.70 per hour. Salaries may vary based on geographic location, level of experience, workplace and type of surgery. An entry-level perfusionist who assists another perfusionist with minor surgeries can expect to earn less than an experienced perfusionist working on complicated surgeries. Additionally, a perfusionist who works for a large hospital will generally earn more.

Requirements to become a perfusionist

Specialized education and training must be completed prior to a perfusionist working in the surgical room. Requirements to become a perfusionist include:

Education

The completion of a four-year degree from an accredited school is required to become a perfusionist. Aspiring perfusionists can expect to take courses in physiology, biology, chemistry and anatomy. Medical professionals, like nurses or medical assistants who have already completed their training, may complete additional training and earn a certification as a perfusionist. Others may choose to pursue a bachelor's degree in perfusion.

Additionally, some perfusionists choose to further their education with a master's degree. The typical educational program to become a perfusionist requires two years of academic study and two years of clinical rotations.

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Training

Perfusionists must complete training in respiratory and circulation systems, and earn practical experience in the surgical room operating the heart-lung machine. Most states require a minimum of 60 to 80 educational hours before beginning training.

Students enrolled in a perfusionist educational program usually complete clinical rotations where they train under a current perfusionist. During this training, they start by observing, then shift toward an active role.

They learn to use machines like the heart-lung machine, blood transfusion devices, artificial heart and intra-aortic balloon pump. Students also develop important perfusionist skills during this time, like project management, organization and communication.

Certifications

Following the completion of all educational requirements, students need to pass the Perfusion Basic Science Examination (PBSE) and the Clinical Applications in Perfusion Examination (CAPE) to earn their Certified Clinical Perfusionist (CCP) credential. This requires completing at least 75 cases, with a minimum of 40 independent cases, before sitting for the exams.

Perfusionists are also required to complete continuing education credits to ensure they maintain current knowledge of their field. Perfusionists complete ongoing training each year and submit proof of the training to the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion in order to maintain their credentials.

Skills

  • Communication: Perfusionists have an important role in keeping surgeons and other medical professionals updated during procedures. Communication skills help them inform others of the patient's status and any changes.

  • Stamina: Since surgeries can last several hours, perfusionists should have excellent physical and mental stamina. They may need to stand for long periods of time while closely monitoring patients and machines.

  • Time management: These professionals need time-management skills to complete all of their duties. They could participate in multiple surgeries throughout the day, complete administrative tasks and monitor patients who require long-term care.

  • Attention to detail: One of the most important parts of a perfusionist's job is to monitor patients throughout surgeries, which requires a strong attention to details such as subtle changes in a patient's status. Being detail-oriented allows necessary adjustments to be made.

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Where does a perfusionist work?

Perfusionists typically work in the operating room of a hospital. They often work a full-time position with a minimum of 40 hours each week. While the expected work hours of a perfusionist generally follow normal business hours, their services may be needed in the evenings or weekends for emergencies.

Typically, these perfusionists work on an on-call schedule. Perfusionists can expect a stressful work environment and may feel a lot of pressure to do their job well. Additionally, heart surgeries can be long, meaning the ability to stand for long periods of time and to always be mentally alert is also important.

Some perfusionists may choose to educate in an academic setting. To teach students, perfusionists usually need a master's degree and some experience. Perfusionists who have completed education and training requirements may also choose to go into research or work directly for medical equipment manufacturers in a sales or mechanical role.

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