What Does an Immunologist Do? And How to Become One

What Does an Immunologist Do? And How to Become One

If you are a medical or college student interested in medicine, immunology is a fascinating specialty with great diversity that is absolutely worth considering. The intricate workings of the immune system and its role in maintaining a person’s health are truly remarkable.
Nicolette Natale

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October 11, 2023

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Although this field doesn’t gain much attention during medical education, it is a specialty with many benefits, including lifestyle flexibility, high earning potential, and the opportunity to treat patients with diverse and complicated medical conditions. Immunologists often treat patients with life-altering diseases, and can substantially impact their quality of life. 

This article will help you understand what being an immunologist means, the common conditions they treat, how long it takes to become one, and why a person might select this medical specialty as their future career path. 

What Is Immunology?

Immunology is a specialty within medicine that focuses on studying the immune system, which plays a significant role in defending the body against infections, diseases, and foreign substances. Immunologists are doctors who receive specialized training in diagnosing, treating, and preventing immune system disorders. They are experts in how the immune system functions and how it can go astray.

The immune system is made up of an intricate network of cells, tissues, and organs that work as a unit to protect the body from disease. It is crucial in identifying and destroying invaders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. The immune system distinguishes healthy cells from unhealthy cells and appropriately deals with infected or malfunctioning cells. If the immune system is not working correctly, it can lead to various infections, allergies, and diseases.

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What Is an Immunologist, and What Conditions Do Immunologists Treat?

In the United States, immunologists are board-certified as both allergists and immunologists.

They treat a wide variety of allergic and immunological conditions. Some of the most common conditions they may diagnose and treat include:

  • Allergies: Immunologists are masters at understanding the ways the immune system may potentially react to allergens. This makes them exceptionally knowledgeable at diagnosing and treating allergic rhinitis, food allergies, asthma, and skin conditions like eczema. They play a central role in the management of patients with allergic diseases.
  • Primary immunodeficiencies: A significant role of the immunologist includes diagnosing and treating primary immunodeficiencies. These are genetic disorders, present from birth,that impact the way the immune system functions. Often, people with primary immunodeficiencies need to be monitored and treated by an immunologist throughout their lifetime due to their difficulties with battling infections naturally.
  • Secondary immunodeficiencies: Immunologists diagnose and treat secondary immunodeficiencies, which occur when another disease, medication, or treatment weakens the immune system. Some examples of secondary immunodeficiencies include HIV/AIDS, cancer, medications that treat rheumatic diseases, immunosuppressive drugs after organ transplants, and glucocorticoids.
  • Transplants: Immunologists work with transplant teams for patients who receive organ transplants. Their primary responsibilities include ensuring organ compatibility, preventing transplant rejection, and managing immunosuppressive therapy after transplant to keep the immune system balanced. 
  • Immunotherapy: Another prominent role of immunologists includes providing immunotherapy treatments aimed at reducing allergic reactions. Immunologists often provide allergy shots or sublingual immunotherapy to desensitize the immune system.
  • Autoimmune diseases: Immunologists are crucial in diagnosing and treating autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and lupus

Although this covers the most common conditions immunologists treat, this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Immunologists may collaborate with other physicians to support recovery from infectious diseases, treat hypersensitivity reactions, and other inflammatory disorders like psoriasis

How to Become an Immunologist

Becoming an immunologist is a long journey, but it is worth the wait if you are passionate about treating this patient population. It requires a significant investment in time, education, and training. Knowing the necessary steps before embarking on a career in this field is important.

The typical path to becoming an immunologist includes undergraduate education, medical school, residency, fellowship, and board certification. 

  • Undergraduate education: Immunologists must complete a bachelor’s degree, usually in a science-related field like biology, chemistry, or biochemistry, to provide them with foundational knowledge for medical school. This is a four-year degree. 
  • Medical school: After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, immunologists must complete medical training to acquire a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree. Medical school is a four-year degree encompassing coursework and clinical education in the hospital setting. 
  • Residency training: All physicians must complete residency training to practice medicine in the United States. Immunologists usually enter a residency in internal medicine or pediatrics to obtain the required general medical knowledge and patient care to pursue a fellowship in immunology. Often during residency, physicians will spend time in immunology as a rotation to ensure this is the right field for them. Residency training is three years for both internal medicine and pediatrics.
  • Fellowship: Once residency is completed, physicians must apply for a fellowship position to train in immunology and allergy. The fellowship position is where immunologists will master advanced diagnosis and treatment of immune system diseases. The duration of fellowships can range from two to three years and allows them to apply for board certification.
  • Board certification: Immunologists must complete board certification in immunology and allergy through the American Board of Allergy and Immunology. Board certification is a comprehensive examination that will ensure immunologists have the appropriate medical knowledge and skills. 

Immunology training is a longer path than some other specialties like internal medicine, emergency medicine, or pediatrics, due to the requirement for fellowship training. These specialties require only 3 years of residency training, while fellowship adds an additional 2-3 years. 

But, the extra training is worth the time, as immunology is a unique field where practitioners treat rare diseases, manage patients over a lifetime, and provide treatments that significantly alter patients’ quality of life. This field of medicine allows practitioners to become experts in a niche field. Immunology can be very fulfilling due to the ability to form long-standing relationships with patients and impart significant change. 

What Does a Typical Day Look Like for an Immunologist?

The typical day for an immunologist can vary based on the specific practice setting you select after board certification. Immunologists can practice in a hospital, clinic, research institution, or even academia. There are particular highlights to each of these practice settings. Here are a few glimpses into what a day in the life of an immunologist would include.

  • Patient consultations: Immunologists in hospitals and clinics often will have patient consultations daily. This means they will see patients who have been referred to them for the diagnosis and treatment of immune disorders. Patient consultations require obtaining a thorough history and physical, taking medical histories, ordering and interpreting diagnostic tests, and developing treatment plans.  
  • Allergy testing: Immunologists in hospitals and clinics perform allergy testing regularly. Allergy testing helps immunologists identify specific allergens that may trigger a person’s allergic reactions. Usually, allergy testing involves skin pricks, blood tests, or patch tests to identify allergens. 
  • Immunotherapy administration: Immunologists provide immunotherapy, including allergy shots or sublingual immunotherapy, to patients with severe allergies. They are also responsible for monitoring the progress of immunotherapy treatment and adjusting the treatment plan for their patients. 
  • Research and clinical trials: Immunologists working at research hospitals or academia are often involved in research and clinical trials. They are the key players in advancing the medical community’s knowledge of immune system disorders, developing new treatments, and testing their efficacy. A research career involves conducting clinical trials, analyzing data, and writing and publishing research findings. 
  • Collaborating with other specialists: Immunologists collaborate with other healthcare professionals in all practice settings. Specialists that immunologists usually work alongside include rheumatologists, pulmonologists, and infectious disease specialists. Working in a team allows medical providers to provide comprehensive care for patients with complex immune system disorders.

Although these are some of the most common activities an immunologist will perform daily, there are many others based on their area of specialization, research interests, passion for teaching, continuing education activities, and the specific needs of patients. 

Why Choose Immunology?

Immunology is a wonderful medical specialty to choose for many reasons. It offers a more flexible lifestyle, a wide range of specializations, significant patient impact, and high compensation. 

Flexible lifestyle

In terms of flexibility, immunologists can practice in many different settings based on their unique career desires. This flexibility allows immunologists to change their practice over the years, switching from more hands-on clinical work to strictly research or vice versa. The endless possibilities make this specialty appealing for individuals looking for a medical career that can change and grow with them. 

Additionally, hospital-based work may have more high-intensity work demands, while clinic-based immunologists can enjoy more typical working hours of Monday-Friday, 9-5 p.m., leaving time for hobbies, family, and self-care. 

Wide range of specializations 

Immunology is a specialty that offers a wide range of specializations. Some immunologists decide to focus solely on allergy patients, others treat autoimmune conditions, and some become masters in transplant immunology. The wide range of disease states that fall under immunology allows the immunologist to tailor their specialty to their passions in the field. 

Profound patient impact

One of the most rewarding aspects of becoming an immunologist is the profound patient impact these physicians make. Treating an immune system disorder appropriately can drastically alter a person’s life, providing them with freedom and flexibility that they didn’t have before. Allergy treatment can also help patients gain back the ability to eat foods they once couldn’t or participate in activities in locations where allergens are high. What once wasn’t possible for these patients can become a routine activity after allergy treatment, and this can be very rewarding for immunologists to see. Immunology might be right for you if you are looking for a specialty where you can impart colossal change for your patients. 

High compensation

High compensation is another benefit of immunology, but the earning potential can vary depending on factors such as experience, location, type of practice, and subspecialty.

So, how much does an immunologist make? According to the Medscape Physician Compensation Report 2022, the average annual compensation for immunologists/allergists in the United States is around $298,000. 

Final Thoughts

Becoming an immunologist is a rewarding and intellectually stimulating journey that requires dedication, perseverance, and a passion for understanding and treating immune system disorders. The field of immunology offers a wide range of opportunities to significantly impact patients’ lives by diagnosing, treating, and preventing immune system disorders. From patient consultations to conducting research, immunologists play a vital role in advancing medical knowledge and improving patient outcomes. If you are interested in the intricacies of the immune system and want to impact patient’s lives substantially, a career in immunology may be the right path for you.

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