How Do I Become a Critical Care Physician?

A. Reed

Critical care physicians focus on the treatment of patients suffering from serious, life-threatening disease states. They can be found working in emergency departments, intensive-care units, and trauma units providing critical assessments, diagnoses, and performing lifesaving interventions. To become a critical care physician, you'll need to be offered admission to medical school and finish a three-year residency. The specialty to become a critical care physician is called emergency medicine and encompasses several sub-specialties from which you can select.​

Obtaining medical experience as a paramedic may help applicants become stronger candidates for a critical care physician position.
Obtaining medical experience as a paramedic may help applicants become stronger candidates for a critical care physician position.

If you want to become a critical care physician, you’ll be required to attend medical school. Premedical preparation includes taking several science courses such as biology and chemistry, and sometimes mathematics depending upon the medical school to which you choose to apply. Most students complete science degrees in biology or biochemistry, but you can decide to pursue a different major. It does not have to be a science-related major, but the premedical courses are mandatory for consideration.

Critical care physicians focus on treating patients suffering from serious, life-threatening conditions.
Critical care physicians focus on treating patients suffering from serious, life-threatening conditions.

​Obtaining some kind of medical experience will enhance your application’s competitiveness, as most colleges of medicine do prefer to admit students who have already gained prior exposure and clinical healthcare experience. This can be accomplished by working as a medical scrub, paramedic, or hospital volunteer while in high school or as an undergraduate in college. Medical scribe positions provide excellent opportunities to learn alongside physicians while taking medical histories.

In medical school, you will spend the first part of your education studying the basic human sciences, including biochemistry, anatomy, and histology. Beginning clerkships will typically teach you how to perform physical examinations and take the medical histories of patients. Year three and four clerkships take you through numerous facets of medicine, including surgery, pediatrics, and primary care, providing you with many opportunities to learn and develop a specialty interest. Upon completion, you will be awarded the medical degree and take an examination to become a licensed medical doctor.

During residency, you’ll need to train in a specialty area of medicine, which, in most regions, to become a critical care physician is referred to as emergency medicine. Residencies in emergency medicine take about three years to complete; however, if you plan to take on a sub-specialty, it could take up to two additional years. Sub-specialties in this field include medical toxicology and palliative medicine. Toxicologists have expertise in helping those who have been poisoned with an environmental chemical or are suffering from a medication overdose. Palliative medicine focuses upon providing medical care to help those diagnosed with long-term illnesses live symptom-free and maintain daily functioning, without use of curative therapies.

Paramedics often deal with the same types of emergency situations handled by critical care physicians.
Paramedics often deal with the same types of emergency situations handled by critical care physicians.

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