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What does a Clinical Perfusionist do?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 08 December 2016
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Clinical perfusionists are highly trained individual who operate heart lung bypass machine, and other machines that help circulate blood and possibly oxygen from outside of the body. This may mean the perfusionist works in surgeries or outside of them. Many of the surgeries for which a clinical perfusionist is required involve stopping the heart during surgery so that repairs can be effected. There are other reasons why perfusion or the need to circulate and oxygenate blood outside of the body exist, including the need for ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, a combination of profusion techniques that support the heart and lungs.

Each country may have its own certification requirements for the clinical perfusionist, but most people must have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree before being accepted into a clinical perfusionist program in the US. Studies within undergraduate programs must include significant work in the sciences. Some programs accepted certain degrees with alacrity like those in registered nursing. Each training program may be different, but many have significant prerequisites and may require training in respiratory therapy.

Once people have completed the two to four year clinical perfusionist training program, certification is typically required. In the US, perfusionists seek this certification through the American Board of Cardiovascular Profusion. Students must take pass several tests in order to earn certification.

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There are not that many programs in the US where this training is offered, and competition may be high to get into one. Good reason exists for programs being extremely selective. Operating heart/lung bypass and ECMO equipment requires extraordinary precision and delicacy. Taking the work of circulation out of its natural element and controlling it by machine is highly unusual, though now fairly common, in the medical world. To do this properly and safely takes significant experience.

The clinical perfusionist must also be gifted at working in a variety of scenarios and with several different populations of patients. These frequently include extremely young patients who may need heart lung bypass while under repairs for heart defects. Yet these clinicians must also be skilled in working with teens, and younger and older adults too, as need might arise for in any of these groups for the services of a clinical perfusionist.

Another skill needed by the clinical perfusionist is strong aptitude in assembly. For each patient that needs extra corporeal (outside of the body) circulation (ECC), a different arrangement or various tubing, artificial “organs” and pumps can be required. Thus it can be said that these specialists don’t just run the machines that perform ECC, but they also build parts of them for each individual patient.

There are differing accounts on the potential for job growth in this field. Some estimate that in places like the US, there may be increased demand over time. There have been some developments that might suggest certain jobs for the clinical perfusionist may ultimately end. Refinements in surgical repairs for some heart defects sometimes mean heart lung bypass isn’t required. However, there are still many circumstances where ECC is needed and where the perfusionist is vital to the process of helping to heal people.

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