Medical Specialties: Neonatology

by Kausar Ali

Neonatology is a relatively new subspecialty of pediatrics that has gained much ground since the 1970s. The field focuses on the care of newborn, premature, and sick babies who are placed in a specific Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in the hospital. Neonatologists treat babies who are critically ill due to underdeveloped organs, breathing problems, birth defects, and other conditions upon birth.

One unique aspect of neonatology is that neonatologists must know the extent of medical procedures and treatments to provide for premature babies, especially those born over a month early.

Dr. Sandip Patel, MD, a neonatologist running NICUs in several hospitals, said, “The hardest thing a neonatologist has to do is know when to let the baby grow on his own.”

It is important in neonatology to allow the normal growth and development of infants without intervening too much with excessive surgeries and medications. In certain cases, performing many medical procedures and surgeries on him or her will actually put more strain on the body and limit normal growth.

Unlike adult or pediatric ICUs, the NICU unit is separate from the delivery room and nursery and has its own NICU nursing staff. This is because NICU has to maintain specific environmental conditions, such as a quiet room and a space for infant ventilator cribs. Babies stay in the NICU until they have fully recovered and are cleared to go home. The NICU has separate regions for stable infants with minor problems and critically ill babies needing tremendous care.

The educational track to become a neonatologist consists of four years of medical school, three years of a pediatric internship and residency, and three years of a neonatology fellowship. According to the Neonatal Perinatal Fellows Workforce Report, there are about 123 neonatology fellowship programs in the U.S.A. to which 175 fellows are recruited.

Exams that need to be taken before licensure in neonatal-perinatal medicine include national medical exams during medical school and internship, the pediatric board exam, and the neonatology fellowship exam.

A neonatologist typically works in a hospital because he or she cannot see infant patients in a private office. The salary ranges from $180,000 to $250,000 per year.

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