How to Become a Perfusionist

What Does a Perfusionist Do?

perfusionist with equipment

In operating rooms around the world dedicated surgeons perform skillful feats that save lives, but they can’t do it alone. There’s a whole team of people in the operating room, each with a critical role to play in seeing patients through an operation. One of the most important roles on this team is the perfusionist — the person who knows how to operate the machines that keep a patient alive during serious procedures such as open-heart surgery. When an operation needs to be performed that involves stoppage of a patient’s heart or lungs, something has to keep blood circulating and oxygen flowing to vital organs such as the brain, kidneys, liver and intestines. That something is one of several different kinds of heart-lung machines coupled with the person who knows how to run it.

Perfusionists interact with surgeons and other healthcare personnel to select and operate the appropriate equipment needed for surgical procedures. During the actual surgery, perfusionists carefully monitor circulatory and metabolic parameters such as blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate and blood gases. They also monitor blood coagulation factors and operate machines that conserve blood and blood products. Besides the operation of the machinery itself, the perfusionist also has the critical role of keeping the surgical team and anesthesiologists informed about the patient’s circulatory status. If the patient’s circulation becomes compromised during the procedure, the surgeon will direct the perfusionist to take corrective measures and administer any needed medicines or blood products through the heart-lung machine.

The perfusionist role also extends beyond the operating room to manage extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machines for patients in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) whose heart and lungs are not able to function properly. They also help place and manage ventricular assist devices in patients who are preparing for or recovering from open-heart surgery. In some health care systems, perfusionists even play a role in obtaining donor organs for heart and lung transplants. Without the critical knowledge and skills of perfusionists, many vital medical procedures simply wouldn’t be possible. It is a demanding and very rewarding career in the field of medicine.

Workplace Details

Perfusionists mainly work in operating rooms in hospitals and surgical centers during heart and lung surgery, but they also work in ICUs. Their hours vary greatly as they must answer the call of surgical and medical emergencies when needed. Many perfusionists also assist in philanthropic cardiac surgery missions, such as the Heart to Heart Mission to the Dominican Republic.

Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Salary.com as of February 2017, perfusionists make a median income of $123,191. Perfusionists who work in supervisory or managerial roles normally earn higher salaries, while those with less experience or in locations with lower cost of living will likely earn less. Perfusionists also work with private industry and medical device companies as regular employees or consultants at high salaries.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (which doesn’t offer job growth or salary data specifically for perfusionists), surgical technologists are expected to experience a 15% job growth between 2014-2024, and cardiovascular technologists are expected to experience 22% job growth between 2014-2024. Both of these rates are much faster than average. Demand for perfusionists exists due to the aging U.S. population, who experience high rates of cardiovascular disease and may increase the future volume of cardiac surgeries, with a concomitant increase in the need for perfusionists. Advances in medical technology that allow patients to survive for longer periods of time, as well as new techniques in cardiothoracic surgery, should also increase demand for perfusionists.

Steps to Become a Perfusionist

1

Enroll in an accredited perfusion education program.

Aspiring perfusionists are required to complete a perfusion program, which take a minimum of four years. Many students choose to pursue a perfusion certificate program, which requires them first to complete a four-year bachelor’s degree. Other students decide instead to pursue a master’s degree in a relevant area, such as cardiovascular perfusion or science, after completing their undergraduate course work. Either way, most perfusion programs require candidates to fulfill prerequisite courses in college-level science and math, and prefer candidates with majors in biology, chemistry, anatomy or physiology. Other programs prefer candidates to have a background in medical technology, respiratory therapy or nursing.

Show Me Schools »

Perfusion programs cover topics such as heart-lung bypass for adults, pediatric patients and neonates; heart surgery; long-term use of heart-lung machines; monitoring patients who are on heart-lung machines; and autotransfusion (transfusion of a patient’s own blood or blood products back to himself).

2

Complete clinical training.

Perfusion schools require completion of hands-on, supervised clinical training. During this training, candidates must perform at least 75 clinical perfusion procedures. This kind of experiential learning is critical to the preparation of perfusionists who must be able to respond to a wide variety of situations that may occur in the operating room, seeing patients through any difficulties encountered. This training is also required by the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion (ABCP) in order to become certified.

3

Meet certification requirements.

In order to become a Certified Clinical Perfusionist (CCP), candidates must pass a two-part exam administered by the ABCP. The first part is called the Perfusion Basic Science Exam, while the second part is called the Clinical Applications in Perfusion Exam.

To sit for the first exam, candidates must have graduated or be enrolled in an accredited perfusion education program, and must have completed the 75 clinical perfusion procedures. Many hospitals will provisionally employ perfusionists who have only completed the first part of the exam and still need to complete the second part. But in order to maintain employment, perfusionists must complete the second part of the exam at some point.

Candidates for the second part need to complete 50 additional perfusion procedures after graduating from school.

4

Renew certification.

Certification renewal occurs every three years. In order to maintain certification, perfusionists must provide proof of completion of a certain minimum number of clinical procedures. Perfusionists must also complete continuing education requirements that keep their skills and knowledge up to date. They can pursue continuing education options online or at professional conferences.

5

Consider opportunities for advancement.

Some perfusionists choose to pursue additional education or training that enables them to assume supervisory roles in medical administration while others go on to rewarding careers as perfusion educators. Some perfusionists also choose to work for medical product manufacturing companies, developing the perfusion equipment that saves lives or working in the marketing and sales divisions of those businesses.

Explore Degree Paths

BACHELOR'S DEGREE

4 years

This pathway is ideal for students who are just starting their healthcare careers.

In order to become a certified perfusionist, you must graduate from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). There are currently four CAAHEP-accredited bachelor’s-level programs in perfusion science in the United States, all found at four-year universities.

Bachelor’s students typically spend their first two years completing degree requirements in the humanities, sciences, math, and communications. It’s often possible to complete this stage at a community college or university close to home, and then transfer to a college with a perfusion science program.

Years 3 and 4 of the bachelor’s degree are spent taking perfusion science classes and gaining supervised clinical experience at teaching hospitals. Coursework during this stage might include:

Perfusion technology

Become familiar with the heart-lung machine and the software that runs it.

Research methods

Understand how to evaluate existing research in perfusion science.

Surgical techniques

Gain the skills you need to function in the operating room, including team member roles, surgical methods, and aseptic techniques.

Physiological management of bypass

Practice monitoring patients’ conditions and keeping them safe during perfusion.

CERTIFICATE PROGRAM

1-2 years beyond the bachelor's level

This pathway is ideal for career changers who already hold a bachelor’s degree in another field.

Earning a certificate in perfusion science is often faster than getting your master’s. The downside is that you usually won’t earn a formal degree or college credit, which can cause problems if you later want to go into teaching or research.

Perfusionist certificates are offered by medical schools, hospitals, and health systems. There are currently five accredited certificate programs in the United States.

As of this writing, all U.S. certificate programs require a bachelor’s degree for admission. In addition, you’ll need to meet extensive prerequisites in chemistry, biology, math, statistics, physics, and human anatomy and physiology.

Certificate coursework closely resembles the last two years of a bachelor’s degree program. In addition to the courses listed above, expect to study:

Cardiac anatomy and physiology

Learn about the structure of the human circulatory system and how it interacts with other body systems.

Pathophysiology

Gain an understanding of how common diseases and conditions affect heart function.

Pharmacology

Study medications commonly used with perfusion patients, including their effects, interactions, and administration.

Advanced perfusion technology

Learn about machines used to provide long-term cardiac bypass and monitor patients.

Certificate-level students also participate in extensive clinical education. This starts with observing cardiac cases and progresses to managing cases under the supervision of a certified perfusion.

MASTER'S DEGREE

2 years beyond the bachelor's level

A master’s degree is another option if you already hold a bachelor’s degree in a different field. Having your M.S. is especially useful if you aspire to teach, conduct research, or become a healthcare manager or executive.

There are currently eight perfusion science master’s programs in the United States. Before applying, you’ll need to meet extensive math and science prerequisites.

The master’s degree curriculum covers the same perfusion courses as the bachelor’s degree. It also offers instruction in teaching techniques, clinical management, and research. Some subjects you’ll probably encounter include:

Project design and research

Learn to design a rigorous investigative study, including sampling, validity, methods, and ethics.

Issues in American health care

Hear about the real-world challenges facing medicine, including cost containment, workforce shortages, and the impact of laws and regulations.

Health care ethics

Study common dilemmas faced by healthcare professionals and tools that can help solve them.

Biostatistics

Use statistics to accurately analyze data and report research findings.

Master’s-level students also complete clinical rotations at local teaching hospitals.

Keys to Success as a Perfusionist

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Calm and levelheaded

Perfusionists are vital members of surgical and critical care teams. Their work helps keep critically ill and medically unstable patients alive. Good perfusionists know how to keep a level head during tense situations in order to focus on what must be done to keep a patient alive.

Healthy and physically fit

Perfusionists keep themselves healthy and fit in order to have superior stamina and mental focus, staying alert during operations that could last as long as 6-8 hours or more.

Detail-oriented

The best perfusionists have a naturally scientific orientation with the ability to pay very close attention to the smallest details.

Strong communicators

Excellent communication abilities are essential in a close-knit and high-stakes team environment.

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