What Is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon?


A cardiothoracic surgeon is a medical doctor who specializes in surgical procedures of the heart, lungs, esophagus, and other organs in the chest. This includes surgeons who can be called cardiac surgeons, cardiovascular surgeons, general thoracic surgeons, and congenital heart surgeons.

Cardiothoracic Surgeons at St. Louis University
A group of Cardiothoracic Surgeons in the operating room at St. Louis University in Missouri
What is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

What is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Cardiothoracic surgeons will graduate from medical school and go on to complete either a 5-year general surgery residency followed by a 2- or 3-year cardiothoracic surgery residency program, or enter into a 6-year integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency.

Some cardiothoracic surgeons choose to do additional training in a subspecialized area but this training is optional with the exception of congenital heart surgery, which requires completion of a 1-year fellowship.

Learn more about cardiothoracic surgeons from Vinod Thourani, MD, Douglas E. Wood, MD, Lauren C. Kane, MD, and Robert S.D. Higgins, MD, MSHA.

Diseases Cardiothoracic Surgeons Treat

Diseases Cardiothoracic Surgeons Treat

Cardiothoracic surgeons operate on diseases that occur in the organs inside the chest and in the bony structures and tissues that form the chest cavity.

Coronary artery disease is one of the most common diseases treated by cardiothoracic surgeons.

General thoracic surgeons treat primarily lung cancer and diseases of the esophagus and chest wall.

Congenital heart surgeons care for babies and children with holes between the heart chambers or abnormal connections within the heart.

Listed below are some examples of diseases treated by cardiothoracic surgeons.

A cardiac or cardiovascular surgeon could treat:

  • Coronary artery disease or blockages of the arteries in the heart
  • Blockages in the heart valve(s)
  • Leaking heart valve(s)
  • Abnormal enlargement or aneurysms of the large arteries in the chest
  • Heart failure
  • Atrial fibrillation

A general thoracic surgeon could treat:

  • Lung cancer
  • Severe emphysema
  • Esophageal cancer 
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Hiatal hernias
  • Swallowing disorders such as achalasia

A congenital heart surgeon could treat:

  • Atrial septal defects
  • Ventricular septal defects
  • Coarctation of the aorta
  • Hypoplastic left or right heart syndrome
  • Transposition of the great arteries
How a Thoracic Surgeon differs from a Cardiologist or Pulmonologist

How a Thoracic Surgeon differs from a Cardiologist or Pulmonologist

A cardiologist will primarily diagnose disorders of the heart and treat them with medication.  Cardiologists also perform interventions on the arteries in the heart working through puncture wounds in the groin, but they do not perform open surgery.

A pulmonologist will diagnose disorders of the lung and treat them with medication.  Some pulmonologists will perform interventions through the airway but do not perform open surgery. 

Role on the Healthcare Team

Role on the Healthcare Team

All cardiothoracic surgeons have the same general training and are certified by the same specialty board, except for congenital heart surgeons who have a sub-specialty certificate in addition to the American Board of Thoracic Surgery (ABTS) certification.


Cardiothoracic Surgeons play an important role on the healthcare team. Watch Todd K. Rosengart, MD, Ram Kumar Subramanyan, MD, PhD, Leah M. Backus, MD, Jeffrey B. Rich, MD, Robbin G. Cohen, MD, MMM, and Jeffrey P. Jacobs, MD describe what cardiothoracic surgeons do, the team approach to surgical care, and how they make a difference for their patients.