Medical specialties: hyperbaric medicine

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Discussing surgery in operating room, Tanzania Hyperbaric therapy involves delivering high levels of oxygen in a pressurized    cylindrical tube in order to treat various medical conditions. Although the therapy has been used for years to treat decompression sickness due to scuba diving, it is also now used to treat certain types of wounds or illnesses. Physicians who specialize in hyperbaric medicine treat patients receiving hyperbaric treatment. 

Responsibilities of a hyperbaric medicine doctor

Hyperbaric therapy is often used in conjunction with other treatments. It may also be used when other treatments have failed. Patients who receive hyperbaric treatment breathe in pure oxygen in a pressured chamber in order to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood, tissues and organs. Increased oxygen levels may promote healing. A wide variety of conditions may be treated including wounds, burns, necrotizing infections and tissue damage from radiation therapy.

Physicians who specialize in hyperbaric medicine perform physical examinations, take medical histories and review diagnostic tests to determine if a patient is an appropriate candidate for hyperbaric treatment. 

Doctors also review past and current treatment to ensure hyperbaric treatment is not contraindicated, which means the patient should not have it. The doctor will then prescribe a treatment plan, which includes the number of treatments in the chamber and a certain dose of oxygen.

In some cases, the physician will operate the hyperbaric chamber. In other instances, the doctor will prescribe the treatment, but a technician will operate the chamber. Physicians trained in hyperbaric medicine will also monitor the patient’s progress and determine if additional treatments are indicated.  

Training

Doctors who are interested in working in hyperbaric medicine start the process like other physicians. A bachelor’s degree is the first step. Classes in college should include chemistry, math and anatomy. Before applying to medical school, applicants are required to take the medical school admissions test. Medical school involves classroom lectures and several clinical rotations.

After graduating from medical school, doctors will need to complete a residency in either emergency medicine or preventive medicine. An emergency medicine residency is usually three to four years long.  Preventive medicine residencies are often three years. Hyperbaric medicine is considered a subspecialty of both emergency medicine and preventive medicine. After becoming board certified in either emergency medicine or preventative medicine, doctors need to complete a one-year fellowship in hyperbaric medicine. After completing a fellowship, board certification is available in hyperbaric medicine from both the American Board of Preventative Medicine and the American Board of Emergency Medicine.

Working conditions

Doctors who work in hyperbaric medicine usually work at hospitals, wound care clinics and independent hyperbaric therapy facilities. They may also find employment teaching at universities and medical centers. Hyperbaric therapy for wound and tissue healing is still a relatively new treatment. Additional opportunities for physicians may be found conducting research. 

Except in emergency situations, such as for decompression sickness treatment, most hyperbaric therapy will be administered during the day. Doctors who work in the field usually have hours that are more predictable than other medical specialties. 

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