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Thoracic Surgeon vs. Cardiothoracic Surgeon: What Are the Differences?

Learn about the two careers and review some of the similarities and differences between them.

Thoracic surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons are both medical professionals who specialize in the treatment of diseases and disorders of the chest. Thoracic surgeons focus on the surgical treatment of diseases of the lungs, while cardiothoracic surgeons focus on the surgical treatment of diseases of the heart and chest.

While both thoracic surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons are highly trained and skilled medical professionals, there are some key differences between these two job titles. In this article, we will compare and contrast thoracic surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons, and discuss the key differences between these two medical professions.

What is a Thoracic Surgeon?

Thoracic Surgeons are medical doctors who specialize in the surgical treatment of diseases and conditions of the chest, which includes the heart, lungs and other organs in the chest cavity. Thoracic Surgeons work in hospitals and private practices. They often collaborate with other medical professionals, such as Cardiologists, to develop treatment plans for their patients. Thoracic Surgeons perform operations to treat conditions such as lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema. They use a variety of surgical techniques, such as minimally invasive surgery, to treat their patients.

What is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon?

A cardiothoracic surgeon is a medical doctor who specializes in the surgical treatment of diseases affecting the heart, lungs and chest. These surgeons work closely with other medical specialists, such as cardiologists and pulmonologists, to develop treatment plans for their patients. In some cases, cardiothoracic surgeons may also provide nonsurgical treatment options, such as medications or lifestyle changes. Cardiothoracic surgeons typically complete 4 years of medical school, 3 years of general surgery residency and 2 to 3 years of cardiothoracic surgery fellowship training.

Thoracic Surgeon vs. Cardiothoracic Surgeon

Here are the main differences between a thoracic surgeon and a cardiothoracic surgeon.

Job Duties

Both types of surgeons work with the chest and lungs to treat medical issues. They may perform surgeries like removing tumors, repairing collapsed lungs or correcting congenital heart defects. The primary difference between the two is that cardiothoracic surgeons specialize in procedures involving the heart. This includes operations like coronary artery bypass surgery, valve replacement and heart transplantation. Thoracic surgeons may also perform these procedures, but they typically do so as well.

Another key difference is that thoracic surgeons often focus on diseases affecting the lymph nodes in the chest, such as tuberculosis. They may also treat conditions like lung cancer, which cardiothoracic surgeons may refer to another type of surgeon for treatment.

Job Requirements

Thoracic surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons must complete a four-year undergraduate degree, followed by medical school, which takes an additional four years. After medical school, they must complete a five-year residency in general surgery and then a two- to three-year fellowship in thoracic or cardiothoracic surgery. To be eligible for certification from the American Board of Thoracic Surgery, surgeons must pass written and oral examinations.

Work Environment

Both thoracic surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons work in hospitals, but they may also perform surgeries in other locations. Cardiothoracic surgeons often travel to different facilities to provide care for patients who need surgery on their hearts or lungs. They may also operate at private practices that specialize in cardiac care.

Thoracic surgeons typically only work in hospitals, though some may have offices where they can meet with patients before and after procedures.


Both thoracic surgeons and cardiothoracic surgeons require excellent technical skills to perform their jobs. This includes being able to use surgical instruments, operating microscopes and other medical equipment. They also need to have a strong understanding of human anatomy and physiology, as they are often working with delicate organs and tissues.

While both types of surgeons need to be able to work well under pressure and make quick decisions, Thoracic surgeons may need to use these skills more frequently as they are often performing emergency surgeries. Cardiothoracic surgeons typically have more time to prepare for their surgeries, as they are usually scheduled in advance.

Both surgeons also need to have excellent communication skills. This is important when they are discussing cases with colleagues, consulting with other medical professionals and providing instructions to surgical teams. However, communication skills are especially crucial for thoracic surgeons, as they often need to provide updates to patients’ families during emergencies.


Thoracic surgeons earn an average salary of $305,181 per year, while cardiothoracic surgeons earn an average salary of $294,414 per year. Both of these salaries may vary depending on the location of the job, the size of the company and the level of experience the surgeon has.


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