With more than 34 million people in the U.S. living with chronic lung diseases, the need for skilled pulmonologists remains prevalent. As they stand at the forefront of diagnosing these conditions and others, such as cystic fibrosis and lung cancer, pulmonologists play a vital role in improving respiratory health and overall well-being. 

Whether you’re a medical student exploring career options or a healthcare professional considering a career change, join us as we explore what these specialized doctors do, how to become a pulmonologist, and the job outlook after becoming one. 

What Is Pulmonology?

Pulmonology is a branch of medicine focused on diagnosing and providing treatment for disorders affecting the respiratory system, including the airway, lungs, and respiratory muscles. Pulmonologists are medical doctors who specialize in treating conditions such as COPD, sleep apnea, lung cancer, and asthma. They also provide preventive measures to reduce the risk of developing respiratory system diseases. Pulmonologists also offer guidance and counseling to patients on lifestyle changes to improve respiratory health and use a combination of medical treatments such as biopsies, bronchoscopy, and medications. 

What Do Pulmonologists Do? 

Pulmonologists assess patients with respiratory issues like asthma, tuberculosis, and pneumonia. Some of the duties and responsibilities of pulmonologists include:

  • Diagnosing conditions such as emphysema and bronchitis;
  • Maintaining detailed patient records;
  • Meeting with patients to discuss their symptoms;
  • Prescribing medication to patients, such as an inhaler for asthma;
  • Referring patients to cardiologists and cardiothoracic surgeons when necessary;
  • Following up with patients after treatment;
  • Gathering samples from patients’ lungs and chest wall lining for assessment. 

Pulmonologists use and interpret exams to diagnose lung diseases, such as:

  • CT scans for obtaining detailed images of the bones, organs, muscles, and blood vessels in the chest;
  • Sleep study for diagnosing sleep disorders such as sleep apnea;
  • Pulse oximetry test for determining the oxygen saturation of the blood;
  • Ultrasound for examining chest organs and other structures;
  • Pleural biopsy for removing a small tissue sample from the pleura. 
What Do Pulmonologists Do_

Pulmonologist Education Requirements

The journey of becoming a pulmonologist involves several education and training requirements, including:

1. Completing 4 years of pre-medical education

The first step in becoming a pulmonologist is completing four years of undergraduate studies, such as a bachelor’s degree. There are no required or even preferred majors for medical schools. You should pursue a degree that allows you to complete the prerequisite coursework in biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and English. 

While we prefer a holistic approach to evaluating applicants, many schools seek students with a higher GPA. Therefore, you should maintain a high GPA during your undergraduate studies to widen the pool of medical school applications. Moreover, during undergraduate studies, you should also engage in activities such as shadowing a doctor, working as an EMT, or volunteering at a hospital to gain relevant experience in healthcare settings. Clinical experience is equally vital in showcasing medical school admissions committees that you’re dedicated and committed to a future career in medicine. 

2. Passing the MCAT

Passing the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is critical for medical school admission. This standardized exam assesses your foundational knowledge of natural and behavioral science concepts and critical thinking skills. As it can be a determinant factor in the medical school you’ll enroll in, preparing for the exam can be overwhelming. So, how to study for the MCAT? To effectively prepare for the MCAT and get a competitive score, you should:

  • Acclimate yourself to the exam’s structure
  • Create an effective study plan based on the amount of time you can dedicate to studying and reviewing your answers
  • Take practice tests and review materials offered by the AAMC.

3. Obtaining a medical degree

The next pivotal step is completing medical school and obtaining either a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or a Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) degree. While they differ in their approach, both medical degrees have a similar structure of pre-clinical and clinical phases. During the first two years of medical school, you’ll learn theoretical knowledge on anatomy, biochemistry, pathology, histology, etc., and laboratory instruction. On the other hand, during the last two years of medical school, you’ll receive basic instruction and hands-on experience with patients during clinical rotations in the major medical specialties. 

Although medical schools have a similar curriculum, you should choose a medical school with strong internal medicine and pulmonary medicine programs to gain the foundational knowledge and skills necessary for your future as a pulmonologist. 

4. Passing the USMLE

Passing the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is an important milestone in obtaining a medical license in the U.S. The examination is divided into three steps, which you’ll take at different stages in your education and training as a pulmonologist. Typically, Step 1 is taken at the end of the second year of medical school, Step 2 in the fourth year of medical school, and Step 3 after the first year of residency. To prepare for your exams, you can utilize the practice materials provided on the USMLE website.

5. Completing an internal medicine residency program

After completing medical school, you’ll have to match into an internal medicine residency program. Internal medicine residencies are typically three years long, during which you’ll learn how to diagnose and treat illnesses under the supervision of an attending physician. Residency is a great opportunity to develop the necessary skills to become a competent and compassionate physician. You’ll also gain exposure to pulmonology, work with experienced pulmonologists, and learn more about what this specialty entails. After completing the internal medicine residency, you can take the internal medicine board certification examination, which is a requirement for obtaining certification in pulmonology. 

6. Completing a fellowship training in pulmonary medicine

Following residency, you must complete two to three years of fellowship training in pulmonary medicine to become a pulmonologist. You’ll learn more about advanced medical knowledge and pulmonology techniques during this period. You’ll also learn more about identifying and treating different respiratory conditions and how to treat them. This includes learning how to perform procedures such as thoracentesis or bronchoscopy. During your fellowship training in pulmonology, you’ll also get the chance to conduct research, thus helping advance the field. Moreover, you may choose a subspecialty of pulmonology, such as pulmonary hypertension, lung transplant, sleep disorders, interventional pulmonology, and more. 

7. Becoming board certified

The last step in becoming a pulmonologist is obtaining board certification in pulmonary medicine through the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM). Although board certification isn’t obligatory, it can showcase your commitment to providing exemplary patient care and demonstrating your dedication to staying current with the medical knowledge and techniques employed in pulmonology. ABIM maintenance of certification (MOC) requirements include earning 100 points every five years and meeting the MOC assessment requirement through the traditional 10-year exam. 

8. Applying for pulmonology positions

While you may have become a fully-fledged pulmonologist, you still need to apply for pulmonology positions to practice medicine. Here are some tips on what you need to do as you enter the job search:

  • Prepare your curriculum vitae (CV) by listing your education residency, fellowship training in a pulmonology program, relevant certification, clinical experience, and research experience;
  • Craft a captivating personal statement that highlights your passion for pulmonology, your aspirations, and your reasons for choosing this specialty;
  • Prepare for interviews by researching the institution and its mission and values and familiarizing yourself with its pulmonology department;
  • Network by attending conferences and networking events with peers and professors, and seek mentorship opportunities with experienced pulmonologists who can provide guidance and support as you navigate your career path. 

What’s the Career Outlook for Pulmonologists?

As a result of the aging population and the continued rise of pulmonary diseases such as COPD, affecting 16 million Americans, pulmonologists are in high demand. Furthermore, as technological advancements transform the approach to pulmonary and critical care medicine, the demand for pulmonologists with expertise in the latest trends grows. 

Moreover, pulmonology is a broad field offering several career opportunities after fellowship training, such as working as a pulmonologist in hospitals, becoming an academician and researcher in academic institutions, or becoming a consultant in private practices. 

It also offers the potential for career advancement by taking leadership and administrative roles within healthcare organizations, such as medical directors for pulmonary departments. Lastly, it provides numerous subspecialty areas, such as pulmonary hypertension, cystic fibrosis, and lung transplantation. 

Conclusion

The path to becoming a pulmonologist is laborious, requiring several education and training steps. From completing a bachelor’s degree to obtaining board certification, it is a thrilling endeavor. Moreover, by pursuing a career as a pulmonologist, you’ll have the opportunity to impact the patients’ lives positively, allowing them to take each breath without difficulty. 

If becoming a pulmonologist seems like a good idea, we encourage you to pursue your passion for respiratory medicine and commit to lifelong learning and professional development in the field. So, get out of your comfort zone and explore our M.D. program to take the first steps in the thrilling adventure of becoming a pulmonologist.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take to become a pulmonologist?

It can take up to 13 years after high school to become a pulmonologist.

What skills are important for a career in pulmonology?

Some of the skills you need for a career in pulmonology include communication, compassion, dexterity, physical stamina, patience, organizational, and problem-solving skills. 

What should I major in to become a pulmonologist?

There isn’t a set requirement about the major you should pursue during undergraduate studies; however, a degree that includes biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics courses will help you keep up with the rigorous coursework in medical school.