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How to Become a Perinatologist

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In the waiting room of a perinatologist's office, you might find a pregnant woman with diabetes, a 40-year-old woman with hypertension, and another whose family has a history of a genetic abnormality. Also called a maternal/fetal physician, a perinatologist specializes in complications of pregnancy. If you want to make a difference as a physician, being a perinatologist gives you the chance to do so for not only one person, but for a woman and her baby before the baby is even born.

Job Description

As a perinatologist, your patients will be pregnant women or women who are considering becoming pregnant. They would be referred to you by their obstetricians because of your expertise as a perinatal specialist. Some may have experienced complications in their pregnancies, such as diabetes, hypertension or another condition that makes their pregnancy high risk.

You'll also counsel women for genetic testing. They may have previously given birth to a baby who has a genetic abnormality and they'll want to know the likelihood of that occurring again. Or, they could have a genetic issue in the family and they want to know if they carry the gene in question before deciding whether to have a child. You'll want to know their entire medical history, the nature of the issue in question, and if the woman is pregnant, and if so, how the baby is developing. To have a complete picture, you may also ask about the father's medical history.

Perinatologists are described as practitioners of maternal fetal medicine because they are concerned about the health of both the high-risk mother and her developing fetus.

Education Requirements for a Perinatologist

To become a perinatologist, you'd follow the same education path as other types of physicians. Your bachelor's degree can be in any field, but taking intensive science and math classes will prepare you for medical school. Also take English and communications classes so you'll be comfortable writing and speaking with patients, colleagues, professors and medical school admissions officials.

You'll then spend four years in medical school studying human anatomy, psychology, medical ethics and taking additional science classes and labs. The first two years are spent mostly in the classroom. The last two years involve hands-on work with patients in clinic and hospital environments, where you'll learn under the supervision of licensed physicians.

You'll rotate through many specialties to see where your interests lie. If you think that's in obstetrics, you'll then take fellowships in perinatology, where you'll learn in-depth about maternal fetal medicine. Expect to spend three years in perinatology fellowships. All states require all physicians to be licensed before they can practice medicine. Requirements vary, but include a comprehensive licensing exam.

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As specialists, perinatologists are highly paid even by physicians' standards. Physicians overall made a median salary of $208,000 or more as of May 2017. Perinatologists made an average salary of $430,558 as of September 2018, with a salary range of $370,923 to $506,391. (A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries. An average salary is the sum of all salaries divided by the number of salaries.)

About the Industry

Perinatologists may have long days that can be stressful, as they consult with women who have high-risk pregnancies. They divide their time between office hours and hospital time spent on emergencies, delivering babies and following up with mothers afterward. Since babies arrive on their own timetable, perinatologists can be called to the hospital at any time, including nights and weekends.

Years of Experience

Salaries are determined partly by a perinatologist's years of experience. Sample salaries as of September 2018:

  • New, with no experience - $419,878
  • With five years of experience - $467,909
  • With 10 years of experience - $476,963
  • With 15 years of experience - $482,623

Job Growth Trend

The need for physicians of all types is expected to increase 13 percent or more between 2016 and 2026. Much of the growth will be health care fields that aging "baby boomers" will need. But, as research and technology continue to make advances in areas such as genetic testing, physicians in maternal fetal medicine will be needed to interpret results and to counsel women.

About the Author

Barbara Bean-Mellinger is a freelance writer who lives in the Washington, D.C. area who has written about careers and education for work.chron.com, workingmother.com, classroom.synonym.com and more. Barbara holds a B.S. from the University of Pittsburgh and has won numerous awards for her writing.

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