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How to Become a Perfusionist

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Cardiac surgery is a team effort, and one of the most important members of the team is the perfusionist. This professional administers the drug that stops the patient’s heart so the surgeon can perform the surgery and manages the heart-lung machine to keep the patient’s blood oxygenated during surgery. Perfusionists work very closely with anesthesiologists but they do not administer anesthesia themselves. They usually have a bachelor’s degree, but may also have a master’s degree or a certificate in clinical perfusion.

Bachelor's Degree Required

Perfusionists must have at least a bachelor’s degree, according to Explore Health Careers. The degree need not be in clinical perfusion, however. An individual with a bachelor’s degree in any field can complete a certificate program to become a perfusionist, according to CAAHEP. Some programs prefer students who have a background in medical technology, respiratory therapy or nursing. The curriculum of a cardiac perfusion program typically includes courses on the use of heart-lung bypass for adults, children and infants; patient monitoring; autotransfusion, storing and returning the patient’s blood; and extensive hands-on clinical practice.

Prerequisites for Perfusion

Other prerequisites for perfusion programs vary. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Programs, or CAAHP, notes that most programs require college-level science and mathematics. Programs last one to four years, and prerequisites are tailored to the type and length of the program. The program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center -- a certificate program -- requires the perfusionist to be a physician assistant, with a minimum of a bachelor of science degree and at least three years of experience. Northshore University Hospital School of Cardiovascular Perfusion offers a master’s degree in clinical perfusion to students with a bachelor of science degree, a minimum GPA of 2.75 and at least one year of clinical experience in a field related to cardiac care.

Accreditation and Certification

Accredited programs for cardiac perfusion are limited, according to, with 17 programs in the United States, as of 2014. Most programs are in the Northeast and Midwest and are offered by large university hospital systems. Programs are typically small and may accept as few as four students. Most programs offer a bachelor’s degree or a post-graduate certificate, although six programs offer a master’s degree in clinical perfusion. After graduation, the perfusionist must pass the certified clinical perfusionist examination offered by the American Board of Cardiovascular Perfusion. Certification is required for practice, and some states also require perfusionists to be licensed.

Job Outlook and Salary

Although perfusionists work during the week, they may also be required to work weekends, holidays or nights, or to be on call for emergency procedures. Job growth is most likely to be driven by an aging population, in which cardiovascular disease and the need for open heart surgery is more likely. The salary range for perfusionists is $65,000 to $135,000 a year, according to Explore Health Careers. The job site Indeed reports the average annual salary for perfusionists was $83,000 in 2014.


Beth Greenwood is an RN and has been a writer since 2010. She specializes in medical and health topics, as well as career articles about health care professions. Greenwood holds an Associate of Science in nursing from Shasta College.

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