Of the 114,000 people on the 2017 wait list for organ transplants, 83 percent of them were waiting for a kidney. In fact, kidneys are the most commonly needed and the most commonly transplanted organs, with wait lists growing each year. Surgeons who learn how to transplant kidneys and other abdominal organs have the satisfaction of saving lives while taking home a six-figure transplant surgeon salary in the process.
As a kidney transplant surgeon, you’ll be responsible for both removing the donor kidney and transplanting the kidney into the recipient. Before the surgeries, you’ll coordinate and discuss the transplant with the other members of the transplant team. Typically, this includes the nurse coordinators, the physicians who will care for your patient after surgery, and surgical residents. Although the surgical procedures of each kidney transplant are basically the same, each patient has a different medical history to consider. In preparation for the surgery, you’ll study your patient’s pre-surgery lab results and you'll take note of any other medical conditions the patient may have.
After the transplant surgery, you’ll monitor your patient’s overall condition and check the incision for signs of infection, drainage and other issues. You’ll confer with transplant physicians about immunosuppressant medications that help prevent organ rejection, and possibly adjusting the medications, if needed.
In the weeks and months following the surgery, the patient will return for frequent check-ups with a member of the transplant team. Typically, patients will see the transplant physician on these follow-up visits, consulting you if there is a question about the condition of the incision or if the kidney shows signs of rejection.
Education and Requirements and Salaries
To become a kidney transplant surgeon, you’ll follow the same education track as general surgeons, then apply for a fellowship in abdominal transplant surgery:
- Bachelor’s degree in any subject, with emphasis on sciences preferred: four years.
- Medical school with general surgery rotation: four years.
- Residency in general surgery: three years average.
- Fellowship in transplant surgery program approved by the American. Society of Transplant Surgeons: two years.
Medical schools that have a transplant center also rotate residents through a transplant surgery rotation. Typically, you’ll gain experience in all the abdominal transplants the center offers, which could include liver and pancreas as well as kidney transplants for adult and pediatric patients. Although you could benefit from having this exposure, it isn’t a requirement for applying for abdominal transplant fellowships.
The American Society of Transplant Surgeons maintains a list of accredited programs that offer fellowships in transplant surgery. Each center’s listing shows which organ transplants it offers. Most offer transplants of several abdominal organs, but a few only offer kidney transplants. Even if your interest is mainly in kidney transplantation, having experience in transplanting other abdominal organs could widen your job opportunities as a transplant surgeon.
During your fellowship, you’ll learn about all the factors in the transplantation process. You’ll learn how to evaluate and screen organ donors and recipients and gain experience in retrieving organs from both living and deceased donors; how to prepare both living donors and recipients for surgery; what to look for in pre-surgery physicals; different immunosuppressant drugs given to recipients and when to give them; performing the surgeries according to each patient’s needs; and post-operative patient care, including watching for signs of organ rejection and adjusting medications.
Salaries for kidney transplant surgeons alone are not readily available. However, a sample of salaries reported in October 2018 show what fellows and transplant surgeons reported being paid, the median* salary for general surgeons as of May 2017, and the reported heart transplant surgeon salary for the sake of comparison:
- Fellowship: $39,000-58,000
- General surgeons: $251,890
- Abdominal transplant surgeons, kidney and liver: $213,000-$297,000 (surgeon salary per month is $17,750-$24,750)
- Heart transplant surgeon: $612,806 with a range of $395,942-$741,480
*A median salary is the midpoint in a list of salaries for one occupation, where half earned more and half earned less.
About the Industry
Being a transplant surgeon can be stressful and involve long hours. You'll be on your feet much of the time, whether in surgery or visiting patients. The nature of organ donation means that you may be called in on an emergency basis with little notice because a donor organ has become available. Or, you may need to readmit a patient who is showing signs of possible organ rejection.
Years of Experience
With experience and increased responsibility, such as managing the department or supervising other transplant surgeons, abdominal transplant surgeons may earn more. Some physicians and surgeons also receive bonuses, depending on their employers.
Job Growth Trend
The need for surgeons of all kinds is expected to grow 13 percent from 2016 to 2026, which is faster than average for all occupations. Since kidney transplants are the most common of all organ transplants, the need for kidney transplant surgeons should remain strong.