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Doctors Are Finding Work in the Air

Ask most doctors why they chose a career in medicine and they'll say it's because they like helping others. The same goes for flight physicians and flight surgeons, also known as flight doctors or flight docs.

Flight physicians undergo the same kind of medical training as those doctors who practice medicine on the ground. This means that after earning their undergraduate degrees, they go to medical school. It's not until after medical school that some doctors choose to take the flight doctor route, a career that involves both medicine and aviation. And for a doctor who loves flying, what better career choice could there be?

Flight doctors have access to a wide variety of jobs and employers. They can choose to work in the military or with a private or commercial airline. They can also work for a government agency (like the Federal Aviation Administration) or with an emergency air rescue team. Their duties will vary depending on where they work, so they all have varying amounts of medical aviation training.

The flight surgeon profession is usually associated with the military. "I'd say about 99 percent of physicians in this specialty come out of the military," says Dr. Keith Martin. He is a retired military flight surgeon who now works in private industry.

"Most aviation units [whether it's army, navy or air force] have their own flight surgeons," says Martin. It's their job, he adds, to take care of the pilots and their families.

Pilots need special care due to where they work. According to the U.S. Army Aviation Medicine website, diseases and medications act differently in the air. It's up to the flight surgeon to understand the effects of various ailments and medicines, and determine if it's safe for a pilot to fly.

People who join the military and train as flight surgeons gain very valuable experience that is often in demand outside of the military. Often, they find work as medical examiners within a government body, or as doctors for commercial airlines. They may teach in a university, work in a hospital or private practice, or even work with NASA helping astronauts.

Those who choose to stay in the military often move on to higher-ranking positions, such as hospital commander or flight surgeon instructor.

"[This profession] is a good stepping-stone if you want to get involved in occupational medicine," says Martin. This is especially true in the civilian world. Flight surgeons who work with government bodies like the FAA often test pilots to ensure they meet medical guidelines before they're allowed to fly.

Flight surgeons may also work as consultants on government or industry projects. Or they may do medical research into the effects of flying on health. Sometimes they even offer expert advice about aviation accidents or in lawsuits.

Commander Cyd Elizabeth Courchesne received her flight surgeon training through the military. She joined the military while she was still in medical school as a way to help pay for her education. Then she was trained as a flight surgeon. After spending time in an airplane and learning about aviation and altitude physiology, she decided that this was the career for her.

"It's very, very exciting," says Courchesne. She says practicing aviation medicine is very similar to practicing regular clinical medicine. It's just that all of her work focuses entirely around aviation, which she loves.

Courchesne and Martin believe there's a demand for flight surgeons, both inside and outside of the military. Dr. Russell Rayman is the executive director for the Aerospace Medicine Organization in Virginia. He agrees. But he says the need for flight surgeons runs hot and cold.

"A lot of what we do depends on the government's budget," Rayman says. Both the military and NASA are often affected by a weaker economy and government cutbacks, he says. And the airlines are, too.

"Yet there are also times when things are very robust," he adds. "With the current bioterrorism threat, the military is likely to increase."

The actual number of flight surgeons across North America is difficult to track.

Martin says that in the U.S. military, there are about 200 to 300 people with "flight surgeon" as their specialty. But there are thousands of doctors working in other fields with flight surgeon training who may have other specialties.

Because the numbers are difficult to track, so are their salaries. According to the Av Jobs website, flight physicians in the U.S. earn between $65,000 and $90,000 a year.

Military flight surgeons generally earn a lower salary than doctors in private practice. But Courchesne points out that would-be flight surgeons need to remember the added benefits the military offers.

"People forget that we have no overhead, and that we don't pay for our own supplies," says Courchesne. Military flight surgeons also get paid vacation time and sick leave. Plus, they have their continuing education paid for, and they don't have to worry about finding and paying for staff.

Although most flight surgeons receive their training in the military, there are a few other training options. You can go to civilian aerospace medicine programs. These are available at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the University of Texas in Galveston, Texas.

Aviation medicine is an excellent career option for those wishing to work in medicine, but who also crave some excitement. It also offers a schedule that is far from routine. "It's a very broad and interesting field," says Rayman. "And one where you'll never be bored."


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