How to Become a Dermatologist— Dermatology as a Career

As an aspiring medical student, you may be curious about how to become a dermatologist. Like many other medical specialties, dermatologists are fully certified doctors who hold a license to practice medicine and have earned an M.D. or D.O. behind their name. Dermatology as a career field has a lot to offer: happy patients, lower stress compared to some other medical specialties, and fairly consistent working hours. Read on to learn more about choosing dermatology as a long-term career.

What is a dermatologist?

A dermatologist is a doctor that specializes in treating diseases and conditions related to the skin. While skin conditions may be the primary focus for dermatologists, these doctors may also treat conditions that affect the hair and nails. Dermatologists can specialize in specific aspects of this field, choosing to focus more on communicable diseases, skin cancers, cosmetic procedures, or research.

How long does it take to become a dermatologist?

After completing high school, it typically takes 9-11 years to become a dermatologist. All aspiring dermatologists must attend 4 years of an undergraduate program (typically a program designed to prepare them for medical school), followed by 4 years of medical school. After graduating medical school, all dermatologists must complete at least 1 year of residency, though the residency could be as long as 3 years, depending on the chosen subspecialty.

What does a dermatologist do?

Dermatologists treat patients with a wide variety of skin conditions and diseases, so they routinely examine patients to diagnose the disease or condition and discuss a treatment plan. Some patients are dealing with severe conditions, such as cancer or serious burns, while other patients come to dermatologists for cosmetic reasons. A dermatologist must be able to triage appropriately, giving his or her attention to the most critically ill patients first.

In addition to routine patient appointments, dermatologists also perform a wide range of procedures and treatments. Some dermatologists focus primarily on cosmetic work, while others perform more disease-focused testing and treatment. Dermatologists can also work in a laboratory setting conducting research on skin cancers and allergies, cutting edge treatments, and more. The specific direction and scope of a dermatologist’s career begins with the choice to specialize while in medical school and residency.

Subspecialties

According to the American Board of Dermatology, doctors can become officially certified in any one of the following subspecialty areas:

Dermatopathology – These specialists focus on diagnosing and treating skin diseases, including infections, immunological disorders, and skin cancers. Dermatopathologists also receive special training in gathering and examining tissue samples and skin scrapings to aid in the process of disease diagnosis.
Pediatric Dermatology – Pediatricians work specifically with children, and these doctors are no exception. Pediatric dermatologists specialize in diagnosing skin disorders and diseases that tend to affect children more often than adults, such as diaper rash or acne.
Micrographic Dermatologic Surgery – Micrographic surgery is a specialized procedure used to treat certain types of skin cancers. In this surgery, progressive layers of cancer tissue are removed and examined one by one until all the cancerous tissue has been removed. These specialists also receive specialty training in treating and diagnosing complex skin cancers and performing reconstructive surgery after skin cancer removal.

Conditions Treated

Depending on the type of specialty training received, a dermatologist might treat patients with a variety of skin conditions, including:

Acne – This is the most common skin condition treated by dermatologists, and the number of cases in the United States is growing. Acne is caused by clogged pores in the skin, primarily on the face and neck, and resulting in red or inflamed blemishes on the skin.
Eczema – Also referred to as atopic dermatitis, this skin condition is common in children and results in itchy, red scaly patches on the face, neck, and crooks of the arms and knees.
Hair Loss – Resulting from a disease that causes the body to attack its own hair follicles, hair loss, also known as alopecia areata, can cause adults to develop noticeable patches of missing hair that won’t grow back.
Athlete’s Foot – This common fungal infection is often characterized by burning or itching around the toes and is most commonly contracted in warm, wet environments.
Psoriasis – This disease causes the body to overproduce skin cells, resulting in an excessive build up, particularly on areas around the knees, elbows, and lower back. These patches are often white and flaky, and they can cause itching, burning, or even a stinging sensation.
Rosacea – Rosacea is named for the rosy red color that is a common symptom of the disease. The redness can be accompanied by bumps or swelling, and rosacea is most commonly found on the cheeks are face.
Skin Cancer – Although skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, it is also one of the most preventable and treatable cancers, especially when diagnosed early. There are over 8 different types of skin cancers, and each have different physical characteristics and treatment patterns.
Cellulitis – Resulting from a bacterial infection, cellulitis causes red, swollen skin that is warm to the touch. Cellulitis most often settles in the legs, although it can show up anywhere on the skin.
Poison ivy, oak, or sumac – These skin conditions result from contact with a family of poisonous plants that can cause painful, itchy rashes that have the potential to spread if not treated properly.
Shingles – This condition results from the virus that also causes chickenpox. Once chickenpox clears, the rash will go away, but the virus remains deep in the body. If the virus resurfaces, it reappears as shingles, causing a painful, blistering rash.

Procedures performed

Dermatologists perform a variety of tests and treatments, from cosmetic procedures used to hide scars or remove unwanted moles to complex tissue samples used to check for cancers. While this isn’t an exhaustive list of the procedures performed by dermatologists, they may perform any of the following:

Hair removal or restoration – For patients who are losing hair, dermatologists may insert hair plugs or provide other hair restoration treatment. For patients who have hair in unwanted places, a dermatologist can provide laser hair removal.
Scar and stretch mark treatments – For unsightly scars or stretch marks, dermatologists can minimize, or in some cases remove, the marks through a few different treatments, depending on their size, age, and location. Dermatologists can use microdermabrasion (using a small brush to remove the top layer of skin), laser treatments, cryotherapy (freezing the affected area), or injections to help the patient feel better about the look of their skin.
Chemical peels – This treatment involves applying a chemical to the skin that causes the top layer of skin to peel off. This is commonplace for acne and some minor sun burns.
Cosmetic injections – Botox or collagen injections are typically a voluntary cosmetic procedure used to give a more youthful appearance to the patient.
Excisions or biopsies – Excisions involve cutting a portion of the skin away for treatment and testing. Biopsies typically involve pulling out small sections of skin from the deeper layers of tissue in order to test for certain diseases.
Skin grafts – This treatment is typically used on burn victims or patients with other deformities or major injuries. Dermatologists will use donated skin or take skin from elsewhere on the patient’s body to repair or replace the affected area.
Micrographic surgery – To treat some types of skin cancer, dermatologists can use micrographic surgery. During the procedure, successive layers of skin are removed and tested under a microscope for cancer cells until there are no discernable signs of cancer remaining.
Allergy tests – For patients who may be experiencing an allergic reaction, dermatologists can provide allergy tests for up to 50 different substances at once. Small punctures are made in an area of the skin, usually on the forearm, and the doctor will observe the area and interpret the results to determine which allergens are causing a problem.

What is the career outlook for a dermatologist?

Like many other medical fields, dermatology is in high demand and the need for certified dermatologists is growing. There are currently not enough dermatologists to meet patient demand, as evidenced by the fact that patients typically have to wait for 2-3 months to get an appointment. Additionally, culture in the United States has put increasing emphasis on looking younger and leading healthier lifestyles, which further increases the demand for cosmetic consultation.

How much do dermatologists make?

According to Salary.com, dermatologists make an average annual salary of $345,900 as of April 27, 2020, which is considerably higher than the average general physician salary of $207,426 for the same time period. Geographic location has a big influence on salaries, as dermatologists in Seattle, Washington earn 22% more than average, while dermatologists in Chicago, Illinois earn 64% less than average. Years of experience, subspecialization, and type of working environment (hospital vs clinical) also play a role in the average salary earned in this field.

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How to Become a Dermatologist— Dermatology as a Career