Pulmonologists - Background and Role in Lung Disease

Definition, Training, and Scope of Practice of Pulmonologists

photo of a pulmonary physician (pulmonologist)
What kind of doctor is a pulmonologist?. Flickr.com/Creative Commons/Eden, Janine and Jim

Definition: Pulmonologist

A pulmonologist is a physician who specializes in treating diseases of the lungs.The area of medicine that studies diseases of the lungs is called pulmonology or pulmonary medicine.

Training

A pulmonologist begins her career by doing a residency in Internal Medicine after medical school. After becoming board certified, she then does a fellowship for several years in pulmonology, It takes at least 7 years after medical school is completed to become a pulmonologist.

What Conditions do They Treat

Pulmonologist treat conditions related to the lungs, but not everyone with a lung problem sees a pulmonologist.The scope of their practice is usually in treating complicated lung diseases and cancer.

Examples of Lung Diseases Treated

An example of just a few of the lung conditions treated by pulmonologist include:

Procedures Done by Pulmonologists

Pulmonologists aren't surgeons, that is, they don't do surgery to remove a lung. But they do perform many procedures. Some include:

  • Thoracentesis - This is a procedure in which a needle is inserted through the chest wall to withdraw fluid from a pleural effusion.There are many causes of pleural effusion, and this procedure allows the pulmonologist to take a sample to send to the lab. The procedure may also be done because of a fluid buildup in the pleural space that is resulting in poor breathing. (The pleural space where these effusions exist lies between the 2 membrane layers (pleura) which surround the lungs.
  • Pulmonary function tests - Pulmonary function tests comprise several different tests, that can help to diagnose lung disease and/or monitor the response of a disease to treatment.
  • Biopsies - Some forms of biopsy, such as a needle biopsy or a biopsy of a bronchial tube are performed by pulmonologists.
  • Bronchoscopy - Bronchoscopy is a procedure in which a flexible tube is inserted into the mouth and down the trachea into the bronchus to look for any abnormal tissues that might be cancer. A biopsy is sometimes done during a bronchoscopy with the help of an ultrasound machine (an endobronchial  ultrasound.)
  • Mediastinoscopy - A mediastinoscopy may be done to help stage a lung cancer, and involved inserting a tube with a camera attached through the chest wall and into the mediastinum.This procedure is often done to see if there is any evidence that a lung cancer has spread to lymph nodes that exist in this area in the central chest region.

Pulmonologists and Lung Cancer Care

You may see a pulmonologist as part of the team of doctors who will help guide you through lung cancer. These doctors may help with making the diagnosis and determining the stage of your cancer. They may help to determine whether or not you are a candidate for lung cancer surgery (will you have enough lung volume after surgery) and also work with you to maximize your breathing capacity after surgery.

They often participate in care during treatment and can help manage the lung symptoms that arise both due to the cancer itself, and those that occur as side effects of one of the treatments

Also Known As: lung specialist

Sources:

American Thoracic Society Documents. An Official American Thoracic Society/European Respiratory Society Statement: The Role of the Pulmonologist in the Diagnosis and Management of Lung Cancer. Accessed 01/26/16. https://www.thoracic.org/statements/resources/lcod/Role-of-Pulmonologist-in-Lung-Ca.pdf

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