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Thoracic Surgeon


If you need surgery for a condition of the chest, including diseases of the lungs, trachea, esophagus, diaphragm, chest wall, heart and thymus gland, you will require the services of a general thoracic surgeon. Thoracic surgeons are physicians expert in the surgical treatment of diseases of the chest, heart, and lungs. Thoracic surgeons work closely with colleagues, such as cardiovascular surgeons, to ensure that you return home with instructions for appropriate incision care, pain management, exercise and other activities of daily living.

The lungs and heart are precious organs that keep us alive. Yet so many people neglect caring for their lungs, engaging in detrimental habits and poor lifestyle choices. Did you know that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the US? If you smoke, are obese, have diabetes or have high cholesterol, then your risks for contracting lung and heart diseases are high. But thoracic surgeons - specialists who diagnose and treat lung and chest diseases - encourage people to quit smoking, start exercising and eat healthier, which will result in a healthier heat and lifestyle.

Thoracic surgeons concentrate solely on one of the following three categories: general thoracic surgery, cardiac surgery or congenital heart surgery. General thoracic surgeons focus on treatments for lung cancer, emphysema, esophageal swallowing problems, esophageal cancer and gastroesophageal reflux. Thoracic cardiac surgeons manage diseases of the blood supply to the heart, heart valves and the arteries and veins in the chest. Congenital heart surgery specialists practice medicine directed towards the correction of heart defects, and furnishing cardiovascular support to infants and children.

Thoracic surgeons perform operations on the lungs and heart. There are a number of different types of operations, including transplants, or bypasses of blocked coronary arteries. They also operate on birth defects of the chest and heart, tumors in the organs contained in the chest cavity, and lung and heart transplants. Sound complicated? Well these conditions are a bit complicated as they all center on the lungs, heart and chest.

If a person's lungs or heart condition poses a significant risk to their health and livelihood, surgery is the preferred method of treatment. Thoracic surgeons often perform lung transplants. Since the first operation was successfully completed, many different improvements and variations in techniques have been developed. Technology in lung transplants has come a long way in recent years and is constantly moving forward. Thoracic surgeons also perform bypass surgery with cardiovascular surgeons and open-heart surgery; a procedure done through a small incision over the heart to access the coronary arteries.

The job can be very rewarding if your patient's survival and health rates improve from surgery. However, due to the complexity of the operations they perform, there is also the risk of heart failure, therefore there is a definite level of emotion involved in this career.
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  Interests and Skills  
Thoracic surgeons are interested in helping people combat lung related disease, first and foremost. They have the intellectual ability required to successfully complete the academic training and to pursue a course of lifelong learning, and the stamina required to work long hours. They have excellent communication skills and can get along with people well and instill confidence. They will need emotional strength and maturity, and passion, empathy and energy.

Thoracic surgeons should enjoy finding solutions to problems, dealing with people, and directing the work of others. The positions requires superior manual dexterity and the ability to manage stress and fatigue. Also, ethics is a strong point for these types of people because they have to do what is right for their patients with their best interests in mind.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Diagnose and treat diseases of the lungs, chest and heart and their functions
  • Examine patients for symptoms indicative of lung and heart disorders, using medical instruments and equipment
  • Transplant lungs, implant pacemakers and other related devices
  • Study diagnostic images and electrocardiograph recordings to aid in making diagnoses
  • Prescribe medications and recommend dietary and physical activity programs
  • Thoracic surgeons split up their time between seeing patients, performing administrative work and conducting research. They generally work long hours, about 50 to 60 per week. Therefore, they can be found in offices, in examination rooms and in the hospital or constantly travelling between these places.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Thoracic surgeons work in hospitals, intensive care units, private clinics, universities and other research offices.

  Long Term Career Potential  
After the many years of school, training and residency that thoracic surgeons must go through, chances are by the time they become professional surgeons, they will work in the field for a long time. Becoming a thoracic surgeon is like getting a huge promotion to begin with. However, they can always learn new skills, add more patients, or change jobs. They may work as directors of research, hospital administrators, medical school administrators, and teachers in medical schools and residency programs. They may manage clinics or do research for pharmaceutical companies. They may also write and publish in scientific and medical journals or take jobs in medical public relations.

  Educational Paths  
Becoming a thoracic surgeon requires a long educational road, so be prepared for a lifelong learning experience. Most start with a Bachelor of Science degree, however some Bachelor of Arts graduates may be accepted into medical school programs. While in high school, take math and science classes. Also, not all medical schools require a bachelor's degree and with good marks, some students can get accepted after two years of undergraduate study. Check with the school for their requirements before applying.

The next step is medical school, which usually takes four years. Graduation from an approved medical school will result in the title Medical Doctor (MD). A six- to eight-year residency in specialized thoracic surgery and cardiology training follows medical school. There is at least three years of internal medicine and three more years in thoracic surgery. Completion of the qualifying licensing examinations is required to practice medicine. Licensure by the regional licensing authority is required.

Finally, before entering medical school, volunteer in a hospital, nursing home or community center. This will give you valuable experience in dealing with people who need help and what it is like to work as a doctor or surgeon.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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