What Is a Pulmonologist? (Career Description And How To Become One)

By Indeed Editorial Team

August 27, 2021

Pulmonologists are highly-trained medical specialists that diagnose and treat patients with ailments relating to the respiratory system. They use many diagnostic tools and therapies to diagnose and manage a wide-range of mild, moderate and severe illnesses. Understanding what a pulmonologist is responsible for and the requirements that need to be met to become one can help you to decide if this career path is right for you. In this article, we discuss what a pulmonologist is, the diseases they treat and the educational requirements of pulmonologists.

What is a pulmonologist?

A pulmonologist is a physician that specializes in the respiratory system, which includes the lungs, airway and respiratory muscles. Pulmonologists may choose a subspecialty and treat individuals with a specific disease. Some of these subspecialties include:

  • Interstitial lung disease: This subspecialty focuses on lung diseases characterized by Inflammation and scarring in the lungs.

  • Lung transplantation: This subspecialty focuses on caring for patients before and after lung transplant surgery.

  • Interventional pulmonology: A pulmonologist who specializes in interventional pulmonology will use multidisciplinary care to treat disorders such as lung cancer and pleural diseases.

  • Neuromuscular disease: This subspecialty includes the treatment of conditions that are caused by respiratory muscle failure.

  • Obstructive lung disease: This form of lung disease is characterized by narrow or obstructed airways.

  • Sleep-disordered breathing: Pulmonologists who subspecialize in sleep-disordered breathing focus on treating individuals whose breathing is compromised because of certain sleep disorders.

What does a pulmonologist do?

A pulmonologists assesses, diagnoses and treats patients with severe or chronic breathing issues. They are trained in internal medicine and the cardio-pulmonary system. Pulmonologists are experts in diagnosing and treating structural, inflammatory, infectious and neoplastic respiratory disorders. Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Performing specialized diagnostic procedures to analyze samples from the lining of the lungs and other areas

  • Meeting with patients to assess symptoms and understand their health concerns

  • Diagnosing and treating temporary or chronic conditions

  • Recording accurate notes on patient treatment, medications and testing

  • Collaborating with cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons when it is necessary for patient treatment

  • Using diagnostic technology to aid in the diagnosis of pulmonary diseases, including CT scans, ultrasounds, bronchoscopies and chest fluoroscopies

  • Referring patients to other specialists for surgeries or other treatments

Types of diseases pulmonologists treat

Pulmonologists diagnose and treat a variety of disorders and conditions such as lung cancer, cystic fibrosis and pneumonia. Many of the diseases they treat are chronic and may require ongoing treatment or therapy. Some common conditions that pulmonologists treat are:

  • Asthma: Coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath

  • Bronchitis: Inflammation in the lining of the bronchial tubes, usually caused by infection

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: COPD includes various types of lung diseases that cause lung tissue damage, airway inflammation and limited airflow.

  • Emphysema: Causes damage to the air sacs in the lungs, which disrupts the gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs

  • Occupational lung disease: Lung disease caused by toxic substances inhaled in a work environment.

  • Obstructive sleep apnea: Breathing stops or slows during sleep

  • Interstitial lung diseases: Scarring in the lungs that causes obstructed breathing

Educational requirements

Pulmonologists are required to have extensive education and training before they begin to practice medicine. Here is the most common educational path for pulmonologists:

  1. Earn an undergraduate degree

  2. Pass the MCAT and apply to medical school

  3. Obtain your doctor of medicine degree

  4. Complete a residency program

  5. Pursue pulmonology training

Earn an undergraduate degree

Earning an undergraduate degree from an accredited college or university is the first step towards becoming a pulmonologist. Students should select a major that includes relevant coursework that they will need to be admitted into medical school. The most common majors for prospective medical students are biology, chemistry or premedical. Students will take courses such as anatomy, physics, biology, chemistry, calculus and microbiology. Bachelor's degrees typically take about 4 years to complete.

Pass the MCAT and apply to medical school

All students who are interested in being admitted into medical school are required to take the Medical College Admission Test. This test allows students to demonstrate their knowledge of natural, behavioral and social science principles and concepts. They will be required to demonstrate their problem-solving and critical thinking abilities. This test is split into four sections and takes about 7 hours and 30 minutes to finish all portions of the exam. Once a student passes the MCAT, they may apply for medical school and send in their scores and undergraduate transcripts.

Obtain your doctor of medicine degree

Medical school teaches a prospective pulmonologist the basics of medicine the first two years of enrollment. Students will learn important skills in courses such as pharmacology, immunology, anatomy and medical genetics, as well as medical ethics and law. The following two years will provide medical students with hands-on training in a clinical setting. Medical students will be awarded with their doctor of medicine degree or M.D. after course requirements are met.

Complete a residency program

After medical school, prospective pulmonologists must complete an internal medicine residency that lasts no less than three years. During this residency the doctors will work closely with experienced doctors to diagnose and treat patients in a clinical setting. They should be able to work and practice independently by their third year of residency. Many residents will also take the board examination at the close of their residency to demonstrate their medical expertise. Employers may require their physicians to be board certified, although this certification is not required by law.

Pursue pulmonology training

The last requirement a prospective pulmonologist must meet is obtaining a pulmonology fellowship. Fellowships last about two years and will teach the physician about the symptoms pulmonary and respiratory conditions, ranging from chronic asthma and tuberculosis to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They will work with patients and experienced pulmonologists directly to develop the skills necessary for their specialization. After a pulmonologist's fellowship is complete, they will be required to take an additional board certification exam according to their specialty.

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