Duties of a Pulmonologist

Pulmonologists use a stethoscope to listen to the heart and lungs.
i Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images

You’ve always been a science fanatic and the human body fascinates you. You aced biology in high school and have had your sights set on a medical career for some time. Pulmonology might be just the medical specialty for you. Pulmonology is a subspecialty of internal medicine with a focus on the lungs, bronchial tubes, upper respiratory tract and heart. The American Medical Group Association reports that pulmonologists earned an average annual salary of $303,125 in 2011.


    Any physician specialty begins with a good education, and most aspiring doctors choose a pre-med, science or biology bachelor’s degree. Then it’s off to four years of medical school and at least a three-year residency in internal medicine. Board certification in internal medicine is the next step. Only then does a pulmonologist enter the specialized training needed for practice, which is usually another two to three years of training specifically in pulmonology. Pulmonologists must also be licensed in all states.

History and Physical

    One of the most important tasks of a pulmonologist is to obtain a complete medical history and complete the physical examination of the patient. The pulmonologist examines the patient’s posture -- patients who are having trouble breathing will lean forward, resting their hands on their knees -- and other visible signs such as skin color and respiratory pattern. The stereoscope is an important tool for a pulmonologist, who uses it to listen to the patient’s heart and lungs to determine if there are any abnormalities. In addition, the pulmonologist uses her fingers to tap the patient’s chest, looking for soreness, abnormal sounds or sensations. Finally, the pulmonologist examines the rest of the patient’s body.

Invasive Procedures

    Although pulmonologists are not surgeons, they perform some invasive procedures. Fiberoptic bronchoscopy may be one of the best-known pulmonology procedures. After the patient is sedated, the pulmonologist passes a flexible lighted tube into the bronchial tubes and lungs to examine the tissues. Pulmonologists might also take biopsies during a bronchoscopy. A pulmonologist might also perform a bronchoalveolar lavage, a procedure in which the lung is irrigated with saline. The saline is suctioned out and the liquid sent to the lab for analysis.

Who and What Pulmonologists Treat

    Pulmonologists receive specialized training in chest conditions and diseases that allows them to care for patients with pneumonia, asthma, tuberculosis, emphysema and the pulmonary complications of AIDS. In addition, pulmonologists manage patients who have lung or breathing complications from surgical and diagnostic procedures, trauma or cystic fibrosis. Sleep apnea and other sleep disorders that affect breathing are another area of expertise for pulmonologists. Some pulmonologists treat only adults, some treat only children and some treat both adults and children.

the nest