Hyperbaric medicine is not just for deep sea divers. Hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) therapy uses oxygen at pressures greater than the normal atmospheric pressure to treat a variety of medical conditions, including carbon monoxide poisoning, non-healing wounds, tissue damage caused by radiation for cancer treatment, and bone infections (osteomyelitis), along with deep sea and scuba diving-related conditions. Hyperbaric medicine is a sub-specialty of internal medicine.
HBO doctors serve as consultants to patients’ primary care physicians. They manage all aspects of hyperbaric care in the context of the overall treatment plan for the patient. They determine the number of treatments needed; the duration of each treatment session; and the pressure best suited to the patient’s needs. The physician is present for every hyperbaric treatment session and monitors the patient’s status and the treatment process. She also checks for possible side effects of the treatment, such as pain or fluid in the ears, changes in vision, and patient fatigue. She also ensures that all safety procedures are followed to prevent cerebral air embolisms, pneumothorax (air between the patient’s lungs and chest wall) and decompression sickness.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) classifies hyperbaric physicians as “physicians and surgeons, all others,” rather than “internists, general.” The 2010 median salary for physicians and surgeons was $166,400, with an average annual pay of $180,870 and a range of $53,510 to $230,340. As with other occupations, salaries depend on the physician's education, experience, type of facility and region of the country. For example, physicians working in outpatient clinics earned an average annual salary of $206,370 in 2010 and those working in colleges and universities earned an average of $107,450. Physicians working in Illinois earned an average of $160,440 per year, while those working in California earned $191,650 in 2010.
Like other physicians, hyperbaric doctors must have a four-year bachelor’s degree (B.S. or B.A.), a four-year medical degree (M.D.) and three to eight years of internship and residency in a specialty, such as internal, family or emergency medicine with a sub-specialty in hyperbaric medicine. Many employers require that physicians have board certification in internal, family or emergency medicine, along with certification by the American College of Hyperbaric Medicine. HBO physicians may also be certified by the American Board of Emergency Medicine.
The demand for hyperbaric physicians is expected to increase between 2008 and 2018 due to the expansion or health care services and the growing elderly population. In addition, medical researchers are investigating the use of hyperbaric medicine in other medical disorders, such as multiple sclerosis, strokes, spinal cord injury, severe frost bite and cerebral palsy. As HBO therapy protocols for these and other conditions are developed and approved for use by the federal government, the demand for hyperbaric physicians will grow.