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.
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.

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Diseases Cardiothoracic Surgeons Treat
Coronary Artery Disease
Heart disease; Coronary arteries become damaged or diseased
Aortic Valve Disease
Occurs when the aortic valve doesn’t work properly
Mitral Valve Disease
Occurs when the mitral valve doesn’t work properly
Lung Cancer
A type of cancer that begins in the lungs
Esophageal Cancer
Cancer that occurs in the esophagus — the hollow, muscular tube that moves food and liquid from the mouth to the stomach
Atrial Septal Defects
A hole in the wall (septum) between the heart’s upper chambers
Ventricular Septal Defects
A hole in the wall (septum) that separates the lower chambers of the heart
Tetralogy of Fallot
A rare, complex series of four congenital heart defects
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
Your primary care physician, cardiologist, pulmonologist, or gastroenterologist may send you to a cardiothoracic surgeon if he/she feels that you could benefit from specialized treatment.
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. 

Cardiothoracic surgeons who have completed approved residency training, hold a full and unrestricted license to practice medicine in the United States, and maintain an ethical standing in the profession are eligible for board certification.
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.

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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.

The Society of Thoracic Surgeons

The STS mission is to advance cardiothoracic surgeons’ delivery of the highest quality patient care through collaboration, education, research, and advocacy.