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A Career in Neonatology

Information for
Students and Teachers

Many students and teachers write to "Neonatology on the Web" asking for information about a career in neonatology. We have assembled answers to some common questions here for your convenience. These are, for the most part, only opinions or estimates, and should not be construed to represent the "official" viewpoint of the American Academy of Pediatrics or any other organized medical society or government agency.

What Is Neonatology Anyway?

Neonatology is the medical specialty of taking care of newborn babies, sick babies, and premature babies.

The word "neonatology" is stuck together from several root words and basically means "science of the newborn" -- "neo" = new, "natal" = birth, "ology" = science of.

A neonatologist is a doctor that specializes in the field of neonatology. So... "Neonatologist" is basically a fancy technical term for "baby doctor."

What Is a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit?

A Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a special area of the hospital that is devoted to the care of critically ill babies. Typically a NICU is completely separated from the nursery for healthy newborns, and may not even be in the same building (the nursery is always located near the rooms for the mothers). The staff for the NICU and the staff for the newborn nursery are completely separate as well.

In most hospitals, babies are only admitted to the NICU directly from the delivery room, the newborn nursery, or from another hospital's NICU or nursery. For reasons of infection control, if a baby has gone home and then gotten sick and come back to the hospital, the baby will probably be admitted to a pediatric ward or pediatric intensive care unit rather than the NICU. Of course, exceptions can be made if the baby has a problem that definitely requires the constant attention of a neonatologist.

Babies usually stay in the NICU until they are ready to go home, even if that takes several months. This is much different than an adult or pediatric intensive care unit, where the patient will leave the unit as soon as they are stable and do not need help with their breathing and constant monitoring. For this reason, NICUs are often divided by walls or partitions into several distinct regions: a true "intensive care" area where the nurses and doctors spend most of their time at the babies' bedsides, an "intermediate care" area for babies that are still on IVs or extra oxygen, and a quieter area for the "growers."

What Kinds Of Problems Do Babies Have?

In most neonatal intensive care units, about half of the babies that are admitted to the unit are full-term babies (born after 37 weeks) and the other half are premature babies -- babies that were born too early (before 37 weeks gestation).

Premature babies are not really "sick" -- at least, not when they are first born. So why do they need to be in an intensive care unit? It's because the various systems and organs of their body are not yet fully developed, which can lead to a host of problems that require expert interventions and constant monitoring. For example:

The problems of the full-term babies that come to the neonatal intensive care unit are typically much different than those of the premature babies, and in some ways are much more complicated and less predictable. Here are a few examples:

How Many Sick Babies Are There?

The number of babies needing a neonatologist and a neonatal intensive care unit varies quite a bit from one hospital to another. In small community hospitals, the number of sick babies is very small, because obstetricians will send a mother to a large medical center for the delivery if they are anticipating that the baby will have problems requiring special attention.

At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center (CSMC) in Los Angeles, there are about 6000 to 7000 deliveries a year. Most of the babies go to the well-baby nursery so they can be near their mothers, but about 600 of the babies per year (or 10% of the deliveries) have some problem requiring admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

The CSMC NICU has 32 beds with an overflow area of an additional 8 beds. At any given time, 8-15 of the babies in the NICU are critically ill, and the rest are being treated for hyperbilirunemia, recovering from infections or surgery, or are premature babies that are doing well and are just waiting to grow big enough to go home.

Who Else Takes Care Of The Sick Babies?

Aside from neonatology, there are many other careers that involve the care of sick babies. In fact, for almost every kind of patient care role in a hospital, there is a specialized position for people that have extra training in the care of newborns. For example:

All of these people play a vital role in caring for the sick babies and their parents.

How many people does it take to keep a neonatal intensive care unit running around the clock, 7 days a week? Again, this varies quite a bit from one hospital to another, depending on whether residents and interns are participating in the babies' care, how sick the babies are, whether surgery is done on babies at that hospital, and so on. At Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, we have the following people on staff that only take care of sick babies:

There are also approximately 40 pediatric residents and interns that spend part of their training time working in the neonatal intensive care unit (usually about 12 weeks total during 3 years of training), as well as other nurses, respiratory therapists, and nutritionists who are partially assigned to the neonatal intensive care unit.

How Do I Become A Neonatologist?

The educational track to a career in neonatology is a long one:

After you graduate from medical school, you have an "M.D." degree, but that doesn't mean you can take care of patients on your own yet, let alone sick babies! [Note: Graduates of osteopathic medical schools, who receive a D.O. degree, can also enter pediatric residencies and neonatology fellowships.]

Before becoming a neonatologist, you must first learn to be general pediatrician. The pediatric training program, or "residency," is 3 years long and is mostly comprised of time in the clinic, inpatient wards, and emergency department under the guidance of pediatric faculty. The resident takes care of patients in a closely supervised environment, goes to daily lectures and teaching conferences, and works night shifts to handle pediatric emergencies in the hospital. The resident is also exposedto a broad broad range of pediatric subspecialties (including pediatric intensive care and neonatal intensive care) for one or two months at a time.

Pediatricians, for the most part, practice in an office setting and take care of children ranging in age from birth to 18 years. Much of their practice is preventative and educational, but they must also be flexible and knowledgeable about physical, mental, and emotional development and about an extremely wide range of diseases. For more information about a pediatric career, see Pediatrics 101 by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Pediatrics 101 Fact Sheets, and the AAP Fact Sheets on Pediatric Subspecialties.

Once you have finished your pediatric training, you must then take 3 additional years of training called a "neonatology fellowship." This time is typically divided between taking care of lots of sick babies in a neonatal intensive care unit, under the constant supervision of experienced neonatologists, and clinical or basic science research. You will learn to handle the full gamut of neonatal problems and diseases as well as planning, carrying out, and writing an article about a research project related to newborn care.

According to the 2001 Neonatal Perinatal Fellows Workforce Report, there were at that time 123 neonatology fellowship training programs in the USA. 101 of the programs were based in teaching hospitals or medical centers, while 22 of the programs were based in free-standing children's hospitals. In 2001, 175 new fellows were recruited into these training programs, and 122 fellows successfully completed their neonatology training.

There are several very important exams that you must take along the way that certify you for patient care. These exams are often called "Boards" which is short for "Medical Board Examinations."

You will probably say "Gosh! 14 years after I graduate from high school. Forget about it!" Yes, it's a long time, but it is not as bad as it sounds. You aren't just sitting in a classroom for 14 years -- after the second year of medical school, you spend most of your time taking care of patients under supervision, and after you graduate from medical school you will spend all your time around children. Residency and fellowship are hard work, but they are also fun, and there is always lots to learn and do.

Students occasionally write and ask us about careers in pediatric surgery, particularly newborn cardiac surgery. Pediatric surgery is a demanding and rewarding career, but the training follows a completely different track from pediatricians and neonatologists. For more information, go to http://www.eapsa.org/ and then click on the link titled "What is a pediatric surgeon?" at the left side of the page.

How Many Neonatologists Are There?

According to a workforce report from the American Academy of Pediatrics in October 1996, there were at that time 3688 board-certified and board-eligible neonatologists in the USA. Approximately 75% were board-certified and 25% had not yet taken or had not passed the neonatology board exam. Of the 3688, about 92% were actually practicing neonatology, and 56% were working as neonatologists full-time. Although these statistics are several years old, they are still useful because the neonatology job market is very stable.

A workforce analysis in the December 2000 issue of Pediatrics ("Providing Pediatric Subspecialty Care: A Workforce Analysis," Pediatrics 106(6):1325-1333, December, 2000) provided the following demographic information based on a survey sent to 2922 neonatologists, with a 70% return rate:

Average age: 47
Average years since graduation from medical school: 21
Average expected age of retirement: 63
Gender: 65% male, 35% female
Ethnic background: 70% Caucasian

There were 102 active 3-year neonatology training programs in the USA as of June 1998, with approximately 150 physicians in each year of training.

Where Do Neonatologists Work?

Most neonatologists work in large hospitals or medical centers as full-time employees. They may take charge of a baby's case immediately based on the baby's birthweight or condition and hospital policies (for example, most hospitals with NICUs have a policy that says something along the lines of "if the baby is sick enough to need intensive care or is significantly premature, it must be taken care of by the hospital neonatologists"), or they may be asked to take responsibility for the care of a baby by that baby's pediatrician (this process is called "referral"). There are some neonatologists in private practice that divide their time between several hospitals. Typically, neonatologists do not see patients in a "private office" outside a hospital, although there are exceptions. The workforce analysis in December 2000 found the following breakdown of types of employers for the neonatologists surveyed:

Medical school hospital: 36%
Group practice: 35%
Community hospital: 18%
Solo practice: 5%
Other site: 5%
HMO Staff/Group model: 2%

The same survey contained the following information about neonatologist locations:

Urban/inner city: 33%
Urban/not inner city: 43%
Suburban: 20%
Rural: 4%

Within a typical large hospital setting, a neonatologist's time is divided between the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the well baby nursery, the delivery room, the high risk infant followup clinic, some administrative meetings and educational conferences, and (in a university medical center) teaching medical students, interns, and residents. The workforce analysis provided the following breakdown of work time for neonatologists as a group:

Direct patient care: 64%
Administration: 13%
Teaching: 10%
Clinical research: 4%
Basic science research: 4%
Other: 4%

In 1998, Drs. Pollack, Ratner, and Lund carried out a survey of neonatal practice in the United States. The summary of this paper is included below:

A questionnaire was distributed to 675 neonatology practices in the United States. Respondents included 420 neonatology practices (62.2% response rate) representing 2006 neonatologists providing clinical care in 695 hospitals, 652 with delivery services that accounted for 1 646 881 live births in 1994. More than 95% of practices and neonatologists identified themselves as based in university, private, or hospital settings. Eighty percent of neonatologists were <50 years old. There was an overall 2:1 male to female gender distribution. Sixty percent of practices consisted of 4 or fewer neonatologists, 25% of practices 5 to 7 neonatologists, and 15% of practices 8 or more neonatologists. Sixty percent of practices provided clinical care in only 1 hospital and 1 neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) as compared with 15% of practices in 3 or more hospitals and <5% of practices in 3 or more NICUs. Of the total 478 NICUs (22 in children's hospitals), 67% had <501 annual admissions and 33% had more then 500 admissions. Of the 456 NICUs in 652 practice hospitals with delivery services, 61% of hospitals had <2501 annual deliveries (57% with NICUs) and 39% of hospitals had more than 2500 annual deliveries (90% with NICUs). The average inborn admission rate for these practice hospitals was 11.7%. University, private, and hospital practices had consistent rates of admissions for inborn and outborn NICU and special care nursery admissions. More than 60% of neonatology practices were involved in normal newborn care on a routine basis, in addition to staffing developmental clinics and providing inpatient and outpatient pediatric care. Additional information was analyzed for utilization of residents and neonatal nurse practitioners. By 1999, 50% of practices anticipated hiring 279 neonatologists and 575 neonatal nurse practitioners.

For more information, see the original article, which was published in Pediatrics 101(3 Pt I):398-405, March 1998.

During 1996-1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics carried out a study of pediatric subspecialty education and practice called the "Future of Pediatric Education II." Some of the findings for neonatology are summarized below:

Over one-third of neonatologists practice in a medical school setting, while over one fourth are in a specialty group practice. Over 80% of neonatologists receive referrals for pediatric patients. The major sources of referrals are pediatric generalists, obstetricians/gynecologists, and family physicians. Just over one half of neonatology practices provide in-hospital, routine, normal newborn care. Nearly two thirds of neonatologists agree that the most efficient model for providing clinical care is a neonatologist providing hands-on clinical care side-by-side with NNPs [neonatal nurse practitioners].

For more information, see the FOPE II Report on the AAP web site.

How Much Do Neonatologists Make?

I just knew   you were going to get around to this topic sooner or later!

There is no simple answer to the question though. Neonatologist salaries are subject to the law of supply and demand like everything else, and depend on many factors, for example:

For the purposes of this discussion, we can generalize and say that incomes range from $75,000/year for a recently-graduated neonatologist in a low-acuity or academic setting, to $250,000/year for a veteran neonatologist providing direct patient care and taking in-house night call in a high-acuity private setting. Of course, there are exceptions at both ends of the spectrum.

What Do You Like Most About Your Job?

Neonatology is fun because the babies are so resilient! Given the right kind of support, they can snap back from almost anything in an amazingly short time. They are so much smarter and more complicated than most people give them credit for, too. Even a premature baby already has a distinct personality and style when they are born. Some babies are "easy," some are "irritable," some are "social," and this is easily recognized as still being their style years later.

Neonatology is also fun because it's a "hands-on" kind of job. Although neonatology is an incredibly specialized occupation in one sense, it's also very generalized. It's one of the few areas left in medicine where a physician can handle nearly all aspects of the patient's care, and do lots of "procedures" (IVs and central lines, intubation, thoractostomies, spinal taps, peritoneal taps, etc.), without calling in a flock of consultants.

Neonatology is one of the few remaining medical specialties where you can get to know patients and their families on a day-to-day basis over a fairly long period of time. Very small premature babies may be in the hospital as long as 4-6 months while they get over their initial problems and then grow big enough to go home safely. The doctors, nurses, and parents often form lasting friendships, and the babies come back to visit us as toddlers, students, and even as teenagers!

And last but not least, neonatology is fun because all the other people in an NICU are so great to be around. The doctors and nurses that work in neonatal intensive care units tend to be friendly, kind, even-tempered people that work well as a team and can empathize with sick babies and their parents. And because, after all, it's an intensive care environment, the doctors and nurses also tend to be smart, experienced, practical people that can think on their feet and take appropriate action quickly when that is necessary.

But... Neonatology is not for everyone. It can be stressful, the hours are long, the pay is not great compared to many other medical specialties with the same (or less) amount of training, and it gets harder and harder to stay up all night in the NICU as you get older. If you are an introspective person that doesn't like to be pushed around by events, if you tend to get bogged down in details, if you find it hard to work in a team, or even if you just don't cope well with lack of sleep, you may want to think about doing something else.

What Does The Future Hold For Neonatology?

There have been a lot of great technological advances in neonatology in the last few years, such as surfactant, high frequency ventilators, extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), and nitric oxide. There has also been amazing progress in other, related areas such as cardiac surgery for infants and heart transplants. These new technologies and techniques have made it possible for us to save many tiny or critically-ill babies that would have died twenty years ago.

The surprising thing about NICUs, considering how data-intensive they are, is that most of them do not use computers in any effective way. There is also relatively little sharing of information or uniformity of care from one NICU to another. It is amazing how many of the policies and procedures in NICUs are used because "they have always been done that way" rather than on the basis of any sound medical evidence. These are areas that need close attention over the next few years.

The place that improvements are desperately needed, though, is in the area of prenatal care. Although it is not very exciting or dramatic, perhaps, it is much healthier for the baby (and much less expensive) to prevent premature birth than to use a lot of exotic technology to save a premature baby after it is born. Unfortunately, we still don't know why most babies are born prematurely, and our society does not place much emphasis on prenatal care and preventative medicine compared to intensive care. While the survival of premature infants as improved drastically over the last forty years, the percentage of premature deliveries has stayed essentially the same, and recently the percentage of premature births has actually been increasing due to the use of fertility drugs and the widespread abuse of cocaine.

Other Information about Neonatology and NICUs

Created 8/1/99 / Last modified 1/25/2015
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