perfusionist in surgery
Allied Health

What Is a Perfusionist?

Healthcare professionals save lives every day, but if you want a job that literally puts you in control of sustaining a patient’s life, becoming a cardiac perfusionist might be the ideal job for you. Cardiac perfusionists sustain patients’ lives when their hearts must be stopped during surgery and keep patients alive while awaiting heart transplant surgery. It’s a very intense yet gratifying allied health career.

A perfusionist performs the unique job of managing machines temporarily serving as a patient’s heart and lungs during cardiac surgeries. Cardiovascular perfusionists receive highly specialized training to prepare for their practice and are one of the best-paid allied health professions.

In this guide, you’ll learn how to become a perfusionist, a typical perfusionist salary and the certification and licensure required to earn this critical, life-saving role on the surgical team.

What Is a Perfusionist’s Job?

Cardiovascular perfusionists are also known as cardiac or cardiopulmonary perfusionists. These jobs emerged in the mid-1950s with the invention of the first cardiopulmonary bypass or heart-lung machines.

Heart-lung machines enable surgeons to work on a non-beating, blood-free heart. The machines take over a patient’s heart function to ensure blood continues circulating through the rest of the body while the surgeon performs delicate repairs. Perfusionists manage the machine that diverts blood from the heart and lungs to a reservoir outside the body, where oxygen is added and carbon dioxide is removed. The machine then returns blood to the aorta to ensure the body’s organs continue functioning.

Perfusionist prepares heart lung bypass machine for surgery

Outside the operating room, cardiac perfusionists manage devices for those with long-term heart or respiratory failure.

Perfusionists aren’t medical doctors. They don’t receive training to diagnose or treat conditions or prescribe medication. Although they operate the heart-lung machine and other devices independently, they work under the overall direction of physicians. Perfusionists also serve a separate function from anesthesiologists, who monitor patients under anesthesia. 

A perfusionist’s job typically includes the following:

  • Operating devices such as heart-lung machines, intra-aortic balloon pumps, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation systems and ventricular assist devices
  • Familiarizing themselves with a patient’s medical history and planning and selecting appropriate equipment
  • Assembling, calibrating, testing, maintaining and making minor repairs to machines and devices
  • Administering medication that stops the patient’s heart during surgery under the direction of the surgeon
  • Monitoring patients’ blood pressure, circulation, body temperature and other vitals
  • Adjusting machines as needed to stabilize the patient
  • Restarting the heart and blood circulation as instructed by the surgeon

How to Become a Perfusionist

While some people decide to become cardiovascular perfusionists early in their careers, some healthcare professionals enter the field after working in a related job. For example, registered nurses, paramedics, respiratory therapists and medical assistants may develop an interest in the profession and change career paths. In fact, the experience you gain working in operating rooms, critical care and trauma can be an asset when transitioning to a perfusionist job. No matter which route you take, the training and education required to become a perfusionist are the same.

1. Complete Your Education

Perfusionists typically hold a bachelor’s degree in a field such as chemistry, biology or health sciences. Most nurses satisfy this requirement with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing

Although perfusionists work in the operating room alongside surgeons, they don’t need to attend medical school. Instead, they must graduate from a perfusion technology program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP).

Perfusion technology programs usually last 2 years and combine classroom education and clinical training. You can earn a Master of Science certificate or a post-baccalaureate certificate. A certificate qualifies you for a clinical role. You may want to pursue a graduate degree if you’re interested in teaching, research, or advancing your career. 

As of March 21, 2023, the CAAHEP website listed 19 accredited perfusion technology programs offered through universities and academic medical centers in the United States. Of these, 12 programs awarded master’s degrees and seven provided certificates.

The table below breaks down the number of graduates and new student enrollments in perfusionist technology programs in 2022, according to the 2022 Annual Report from the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion (ABCP).  

  Master of Science Certificate or Post-Baccalaureate Certificate Total
Graduated 181 39 220
New Student Enrollment 238 31 269

Source: ABCP

2. Pass Your Certification Exams

After completing your education, you must pass two exams to become a Certified Clinical Perfusionist (CCP):

  • Perfusion Basic Science Examination (PBSE): This 220-question multiple-choice exam covers basic knowledge such as anatomy, pharmacology, devices and equipment, quality assurance, monitoring and catastrophic events. You must perform at least 75 clinical perfusions during your educational training to qualify to sit for the PBSE.
  • Clinical Applications in Perfusion Examination (CAPE): This multiple-choice exam has up to 230 questions covering various clinical scenarios. You must perform at least 40 independent clinical perfusions after graduating from a perfusion technology program to qualify for the CAPE.

The following table indicates the number of newly certified perfusionists entering the field in the last 6 years, according to ABCP’s 2022 Annual Report. The total CCP figure includes those working outside the United States.

 Year New CCP Certifications Total CCP Certifications
2022 237 4750
2021 239 4655
2020 210 4522
2019 222 4418
2018 217 4323
2017 172 4234

Source: ABCP

3. Obtain Licensure

Some states require perfusionists to obtain a license before practicing. You must meet all eligibility guidelines, including education and certification requirements, and submit the necessary application form and fees. Guidelines vary, but most states require CCP certification.

Per the Medical University of South Carolina, the following 19 states required licensure as of March 22, 2023:

  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey 
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • Pennsylvania
  • Tennessee
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin

It’s still essential to obtain CCP certification, even if you plan to work in a state that doesn’t require licensure. Employers often ask for credentials as evidence of your qualifications to practice.

Demand for Perfusionists

According to ABCP’s 2022 Annual Report,  about 4,300 certified CCPs live in the United States. The states with the highest numbers of certified perfusionists are:  

  • Texas: 360
  • Florida: 347
  • California: 333
  • Pennsylvania: 245
  • New York: 239

Most cardiovascular perfusionists work in hospitals or surgical centers. They may also find employment with other healthcare facilities or contract perfusionist groups.

Based on responses to a perfusionist workforce survey completed in 2019 and published in the Journal of ExtraCorporeal Technology, most perfusionists work full-time for about 35 to 40 hours per week. However, surgeries take place around the clock, and you may have to be on call or work rotating weekends, evenings and holidays.

Travel Opportunities for Perfusionists

Nurse Licensure Compact Map / travel map

Because experienced clinicians are needed across the nation, travel perfusionist jobs are an option for those who want to add variety to their work by taking temporary contracts in different locations. In addition to receiving generous pay, travel perfusionists can gain resume-building experience in a variety of settings, such as heart institutes, academic medical centers and pediatric hospitals.  

Job Vacancy Rate

Skilled cardiopulmonary perfusionists are in demand in the United States. The survey published in the Journal of ExtraCorporeal Technology found a 12.3% vacancy rate in perfusionist jobs in early 2019, which is considered high in other healthcare occupations. It also identified a 14.7% turnover rate in perfusionist jobs.

The need for perfusionists is due to a few factors:

  • A growing demographic of older adults requiring treatment for cardiovascular disease
  • Medical advances resulting in new procedures and treatments for heart disease and defects
  • Perfusionists retiring or exiting the workforce
  • Specialized training requirements and limited education programs

As the article notes, because the number of practicing CCPs is relatively small compared to other allied health professionals, changes in supply and demand can have a significant impact on the workforce and patient care.

What Is the Average Perfusionist Salary?

Cardiac perfusionists must have a high level of skill and training to manage patients on cardiac bypass. The average staff perfusionist salary reflects the significance of their responsibility in the operating room. Experience and geographic location also affect individual pay, but staff perfusionists earn an average annual salary of $193,440 in late 2022 per Vivian Health, making them the highest-paid allied health professional at that time.

This level of compensation is echoed in staff perfusionist job postings on Vivian on March 21, 2023. Staff perfusionists could earn up to $94 per hour on this date, with some employers offering sign-on bonuses.

The average travel perfusionist salary was $4,767 per week or $119 per hour based on a 40-hour workweek, per Vivian’s salary data on March 21, 2023. Healthcare facilities in Boston, Massachusetts, had the highest demand for travel perfusionists.

What Skills Does a Perfusionist Need?

The operating room is a pressure-filled environment. Patients are at their most vulnerable and depend on the surgical team for their well-being. As a result, perfusionists have little room for error, making the job stressful and demanding.

Your strong clinical knowledge and expertise help you perform at your best, but you should also have a diverse set of skills to support you in an intense, sometimes unpredictable setting. These skills include:  

  • Exceptional interpersonal skills to interact effectively with the surgical team
  • Listening and communication skills to ensure smooth and accurate information exchange
  • Ability to manage conflict
  • Ability to handle unexpected situations and emergencies in a calm manner
  • Strong attention to detail to precisely monitor patients
  • Ability to remain mentally alert and focused during long and complex surgeries
  • Good judgment and well-developed critical thinking skills for quickly responding to fluid situations
  • Physical endurance and ability to lift patients and stand for long periods of time
  • Passion and aptitude for technology
  • Gross motor skills and manual dexterity to set up equipment

A cardiovascular perfusionist job has its challenges, but the rewards of positive outcomes and making a difference in patient lives often makes up for the difficult moments. If you think you would thrive in this fast-paced, high-tech medical environment, consider enrolling in a perfusionist technology program to kickstart a new career.

Vivian Health

Vivian Health is the leading jobs marketplace built to serve healthcare professionals first. Our transparent job information not only helps nurses and allied health professionals find their next opportunity but empowers them to grow their careers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Most Popular on Community Hub