Neurology is a diverse medical specialty, encompassing disorders of the brain, spinal cord and vascular system. Neurologists treat young and old alike, from children with traumatic brain injuries to elderly patients suffering from dementia. To become a neurologist you must commit to years of education and training and prepare for a career of long work hours. Nonetheless, once you succeed, you can reap the rewards of helping people improve their health, while earning a comfortable salary.
Neurologist Job Description
Neurologists diagnose and treat brain diseases and injuries. Neurology is a broad field of medicine in which neurologists also deal with conditions of the muscles, vascular system, spinal cord and peripheral nerves. Common neurological conditions include Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s disease, meningitis, stroke, Tourette syndrome and traumatic brain injury.
Some neurologists work in research positions for pharmaceutical companies, medical schools or hospitals that specialize in brain injuries or disorders. For example, Stanford University School of Medicine operates the Stanford Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine Institute, which studies multiple sclerosis, strokes, epilepsy, movement disorders and headaches. Most research neurologists work in laboratories and work around 40 hours per week.
Neurologists who treat patients work for medical groups, hospitals or in private practices, and often work at least 60 hours per week. Neurologists receive patients in a variety of ways. At times, primary care doctors refer patients to neurologists due to symptoms that surface during routine medical examinations. Some patients see neurologists to treat a progressive disease or after suffering a traumatic head injury.
During a patient’s initial examination, neurologists often check for signs of motor function problems such as loss of balance. They also assess the patient’s mental state to determine if they suffer from confusion or memory loss. Some patients receive a sensory examination to evaluate their ability to feel temperatures, pressure or pain. Neurologists also test the ability to smell in patients with signs of olfactory disorders.
Many neurologists are specialists in specific conditions or types of brain injuries. Neuro-muscular neurologists work with patients who suffer from muscle and nerve disorders, while neuro-vascular neurologists treat stroke victims.
Other neurologists treat patients who suffer chronic headaches or movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Neuro-oncologists work closely with oncologists, radiologists and neurosurgeons to treat patients with brain tumors.
Neuro-ophthalmologists treat patients who suffer double vision, optic nerve disorders and loss of visual-cognitive function. Pediatric neurologists treat children with brain conditions and emotional and behavioral issues caused by nervous system disorders. Other neurologists help patients who suffer from sleep disorders.
Neuro-immunologists work closely with physical therapists, radiologists, neurosurgeons and otologists to help treat people with multiple sclerosis, while neuro-behaviorists treat patients who suffer from memory loss due to dementia or traumatic brain injury.
If you plan to become a neurologist, prepare for many years of education and training. First, you must earn at least a bachelor’s degree, which typically take about four years to complete. Some future physicians also earn a master’s degree, which takes one to two years, before applying to medical school. Many aspiring doctors choose a pre-med bachelor’s degree program, which includes coursework in chemistry, physics, mathematics and biology, along with research and clinical experience.
After obtaining your bachelor’s degree, you must enroll in medical school. Medical school admission is very competitive and requires you to jump many hurdles. You must pass the Medical College Admission Test and complete an interview with an admissions committee. Typically, medical school applications ask for letters of recommendation, transcripts and information about extracurricular and volunteer activities. Admissions committees seek well-rounded candidates, whom they believe have the best chance of succeeding in school and as a doctor.
Most medical school programs take about four years to complete. Medical school coursework includes psychology, anatomy, pharmacology, medical ethics and biochemistry. During the last two years of medical school, students receive practical training in hospitals and clinics, working in surgery, internal medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry and gynecology.
After finishing medical school, you must complete an internship and residency. Some medical schools include the internship and residency as part of their program. For example, New York University’s neurosurgeon program includes four years of medical school, followed by a one-year internship and a three-year residency. While medical school will prepare you for a career as a doctor or surgeon, you will learn the ins and outs of neurology during your residency.
Neurologist Licensing and Certification Requirements
Before practicing neurology, you must obtain a license, which requires passing the Medical Licensing Examination.
Although neurologists are not required to hold a certification to practice, many seek board certification from medical organizations such as the American Board of Physician Specialties or the American Board of Medical Specialties to advance their careers.
Some neurologists obtain certification from neurological organizations such as the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Most certification programs require passing an examination and some require completion of board-sponsored training courses.
Additional Neurologist Requirements
To properly serve their patients, neurologists must have certain personal and professional skills that go beyond their education. They must have compassion for the pain and suffering of their patients, as well as the anxiety patients’ family members experience.
Neurologists must have good organizational skills when noting patients’ medical histories and the ability to direct other medical staff in carrying out treatment plans. They must possess patience when dealing with difficult patients or medical procedures and physical stamina to work long shifts.
Neurologists must have good communication skills to explain complex medical conditions to their patients. They must pay attention to details when diagnosing medical conditions and devising treatment plans.
In 2017, physicians and surgeons earned a median income of around $208,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median income represents the midpoint of the physician and surgeon pay scale. Neurologists earn an average base income of around $214,000, according to the jobs website Glassdoor.
Neurologists’ salaries can vary by employer. For example, neurologists who work for VCU Health earn an average salary of $103,000, while their colleagues as Southeast Alabama Medical Center take home more than $315,000, according to Glassdoor.
Neurology salaries also vary by subspecialty. According to a Glassdoor survey, pediatric neurologists earn an average salary of $214,000, while neurosurgeons make nearly $500,000.
Neurologist Job Outlook
Based on BLS estimates, jobs for physicians and surgeons should increase by around 13 percent, from now until 2026. Much of the rapid growth is rooted in the medical needs of the aging baby-boomer population.
However, neurologist job opportunities often vary by state. According to the jobs website Recruiter, in recent years states with the highest number of neurologist vacancies have included Utah, Idaho and Nevada. On the other hand, Tennessee, South Carolina and Minnesota have experienced substantial decreases in neurologist job opportunities.
While the need for healthcare professionals continues to grow, access to health care is subject to change, due to healthcare policies. In recent years, the cost of and access to health care has seesawed up and down, in the midst of political battles in the United States Congress. If the federal government makes cuts to Medicaid or Medicare, or if private insurers raise rates and deductibles, fewer people will have the money to afford health care. Subsequently, job opportunities for doctors and physicians might decrease.