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How to Become an Intensivist (Critical Care) in 2023

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by Mohamed Ahmed in Residency

Do you want to know how to become an intensivist? Are you interested in a medical career that provides not only patient care but also offers unique opportunities for medical research and a chance to be on the cutting edge of modern medicine?

If so, an intensivist career may be the perfect choice for you. In this blog post, I will explain what an intensivist does and how to become one, even if you’re only in high school.


  • Intensivists specialize in diagnosing, treating, and supporting critically ill and injured patients, including those who have sustained a traumatic injury or have multiple organ dysfunctions.
  • Critical care is a sub-specialty of internal medicine. Internal medicine residency training is three years, in addition to 2 more years in critical care fellowship.
  • Going to a top medical school may help a bit. However, how you do on your USMLEs (Board) scores and in your med school class ranking will matter more
  • Non-PhD degrees like MBAs and MPHs appear to have no advantage to becoming an intensivist.

Table of Contents

What Are Intensivists?

Intensivists specialize in treating and supporting critically ill patients including life-threatening injuries or organ system failure. They must be competent in the wide range of conditions common to critically ill patients and the diagnostic devices and procedures used in intensive care settings. Rather than focusing on one specific body system, intensivists take a holistic approach to patient care. Intensivists lead the ICU room and coordinate the specialists for patients as needed. They are also trained to perform emergency procedures such as ventilation, dialysis, tracheostomy, central venous access, and arterial cannulation.

Intensivists must be decisive because, if the patient’s critical illness fails to respond to treatment, an intensivist may need to make a judgment to withdraw treatment.

Is an Intensivist a Doctor?

Are intensivists doctors? The answer to this question is yes; intensivists are doctors.

An intensivist is a specialized physician who has completed medical school, usually followed by a three-year residency in internal medicine and 2 more years in a critical care fellowship. During this time, the intensivist trains to care for and manage critically ill patients presenting in ICU.

Intensivists vs. Emergency Medicine Doctors: What’s the Difference?

Emergency medicine doctors diagnose and treat patients with acute illnesses or injuries. While Intensivists specialize in treating and supporting critically ill and injured patients.

In summary, both doctors deal with critically ill patients, but one significant difference between them is that an emergency medicine doctor is focused on obtaining a stable state for the patient.

How Long Does It Take To Become an Intensivist?

Becoming an intensivist is no easy feat and requires considerable time and energy. But if you’re up to the challenge, the results can be gratifying.

At a minimum, it takes a minimum of 13 years after high school to become an intensivist. That includes four years of undergraduate education, four years of medical school, three years of internal medicine residency, and two years of critical care fellowship. Along the way, you’ll have to take various standardized exams, including the SAT, the MCAT, and the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK.

Undergraduate (4 Years)

The first step to becoming an intensivist is entering and completing an undergraduate program. This means taking the SATs and doing well enough to be accepted into a college or university. Once accepted into an undergraduate program, you’ll have to complete a minimum of four years of academic coursework. This includes classes in biology, chemistry, physics, English, and other general education courses.

Medical School (4 Years)

The next step is to take the MCAT, a standardized exam that measures your knowledge and skills in biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. You’ll need to score well on the MCAT for med school acceptance.

You’ll have to complete four years of academic and clinical training during medical school. This includes classes in anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, pathology, and other medical topics. You’ll also have to complete clinical rotations at hospitals and other healthcare facilities to gain hands-on experience.

Internal Medicine Residency (3 Years)

Critical care medicine is a sub-specialty of internal medicine, so you need to do an internal medicine residency to become an intensivist. After you’ve completed medical school, you’ll have to match into an internal medicine residency. To do this, you’ll have to take the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK exams. These exams measure your knowledge and skills in the areas of clinical medicine. Once you’ve passed these exams, you’ll be eligible to apply for residency.

Once you’ve matched into an internal medicine residency, you’ll have to complete three years of clinical training to become qualified. During this training period and before specializing in critical care, you’ll learn how to evaluate and manage several types of general medical conditions.

After Internal Medicine Residency: Board Certification

Intensivists should be board certified by the American Board of Internal medicine in both internal medicine and then in the critical care medicine subspecialty. Upon completing your internal medicine residency, you’ll be eligible to take the Internal Medicine Board Exam to become a board-certified internist which is required for you to later become a board-certified intensivist.

Critical Care Medicine Fellowship (2 years)

After completing your internal medicine residency, you must complete a critical care fellowship for another two years. During this time, you’ll learn to diagnose, treat, and manage a wide range of conditions common to critically ill patients. You will gain an in-depth understanding of the field of critical care in addition to performing emergency procedures and clinical research. Upon completing your critical care, you’ll be eligible to take the Internal Medicine Board Exam in critical care to become a board-certified intensivist.


Becoming an intensivist takes a minimum of 13 years after high school. It’s a long and arduous process, but if you’re dedicated and passionate about becoming an intensivist, the rewards are worth it.

How Competitive is it to Become an Intensivist?

Internal medicine is one of the less competitive specialties in matching into a residency program. Each year, thousands of hopeful medical school graduates apply for a limited number of positions in their preferred specialty. The Match system, run by the National Resident Match Program (NRMP), pairs applicants with training programs based on their preferences.

But how competitive is internal medicine in the US? To answer this question, it is important to look at the unmatched rates of US seniors by specialty. The unmatched rate refers to the percentage of US seniors who applied for a residency program in that specialty but did not get matched. It considers each applicant’s first-choice specialty. So, if you applied to a different specialty as a “backup” but didn’t match because you matched in your first choice, this wouldn’t be included. To learn more about how to maximize your chances at a dream residency through “The Match,” see this article.

In the 2022 Match, graduating US medical school seniors attending MD schools had a 2% unmatched rate to internal medicine. This makes it one of the less competitive specialties, unlike specialties like plastic surgery (unmatched % 37.3%), orthopedic surgery (34.2%), or otolaryngology (sometimes called “ENT” for ear-nose-throat; 30.8%).

For more on the competitiveness of internal medicine relative to other medical specialties, see this article.

Intensivist Annual Compensation

One stereotype of intensivists is that they make a lot of money. Intensivists have an average annual salary of $369,000. However, this can vary dramatically based on practice setting, specialty training, and experience level.

Intensivist (Critical Care) Annual Salary

Intensivists (Critical Care) make $369,000 per year on average

How Much Do Intensivists Make an Hour?

You may also be wondering, how much do intensivists make per hour? And how is the balance between time inside vs. outside the hospital for the specialty?

While there isn’t perfect data, we’ve compiled data regarding hours/weeks worked and annual salary for various specialties, including critical care.

Here are the data:

Average Annual SalaryAverage Hourly SalaryOn-Call ScheduleHours/WeekAvg Weeks Worked/Year
Critical Care$369,000.00$114.9166.9
Diagnostic Radiology$437,000.00$170.46Low5844.2
Emergency Medicine$373,000.00$169.59Medium46.447.4
Family Medicine$255,000.00$101.85Medium52.647.6
General Surgery$402,000.00$141.88High59.447.7
Infectious Diseases$260,000.00$101.44High53.4
Internal Medicine$264,000.00$100.81Medium54.947.7
Interventional Radiology$437,000.00
Neurological Surgery (Assistant Prof. Median)$600,500.00$214.96Medium58.2
Obstetrics and Gynecology$336,000.00$123.26Medium5847
Orthopaedic Surgery$557,000.00$207.91Medium5747
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation$322,000.00$147.7645.4
Plastic Surgery$576,000.00$230.77Medium52
Pulmonary Med$353,000.00$119.77Medium61.4
Radiation Oncology (Assistant Prof. Median)$393,734.00$158.36Low51.8
Total Average$381,233.35$147.4453.9

And the estimated physician salary per hour by specialty (critical care highlighted in red):

Intensivist (Critical Care) Hourly Salary

Intensivists (Critical Care) make $114 an hour on average

Note: when data were unavailable for weeks worked per year, 48 weeks was used as an estimate to calculate the estimated hourly salary.

Getting AOA (Med School Honors) Helps in Becoming an Intensivist

Medical school is one of the most challenging aspects of becoming a doctor. Many medical schools have established Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) branches to recognize top students’ hard work and dedication.

Alpha Omega Alpha (AOA) is the medical school honors society for students who excel in their studies and demonstrate an exemplary commitment to professionalism and leadership. Each medical school may elect up to 20% of their graduating class to be inducted into AOA.

Induction into AOA is a prestigious honor that carries with it a variety of benefits. AOA members may be eligible for special scholarships and fellowships and can often receive priority consideration for residency positions.

The AOA advantage is particularly notable for the most competitive fields and/or residency programs. The 2022 Match data showed that the match rate for US medical school seniors with AOA membership was 2% greater than that of US seniors without AOA membership in internal medicine. In other words, AOA membership provided a modest advantage to matching into an internal medicine residency.

AOA Membership Advantage for Internal Medicine 2022

AOA membership correlated with a 2% match rate advantage for Internal Medicine in the 2022 Match

See this article for more on AOA medical schools and the importance of class rank for matching.

Do You Need to Attend a Top School to Become an Intensivist?

When pursuing a career in critical care, attending a top medical school can make a difference in matching into your desired specialty. According to a survey of program directors, over half of those surveyed reported considering applicants’ med school reputation when considering whom to interview, giving it an importance score of 3.8 out of 5.

Moreover, graduating from a school in the top 40 for NIH funding is associated with a 1% increase in the likelihood of matching into internal medicine as a field. This is potentially because top medical schools have more resources and access to clinical experience, which can help prepare students for the rigors of the specialty.

That said, it is important to remember that the name of the school alone does not guarantee success in any field. While attending a top medical school may have advantages, it is ultimately up to the individual to make the most of the opportunities presented. And while there is an advantage to being from a more prestigious institution, one’s record at the school will matter much more, including things like USMLE scores, class rank, and letters of recommendation.

Top 40 med school internal medicine match 2022

Graduating from a medical school ranked in the top 40 by NIH funding correlated with a 1% match rate advantage for internal medicine in the 2022 Match

Does an MPH or MBA Help You Become an Intensivist?

Medical training is long and arduous. Remarkably, many students consider completing other degrees before, after, or even while pursuing their medical studies. Degrees such as Master of Public Health (MPH) and Master of Business Administration (MBA) may seem attractive to potential internal medicine residents due to their additional qualifications. But do these additional degrees give applicants an edge in the residency application process?

The truth is that having an additional degree may not matter as much as one thinks. We crunched the numbers on the match rate for graduating students from MD schools for those with non-PhD other degrees vs. those that did not have a second degree. In internal medicine, the match rate was the same(0% advantage)  for those with degrees like an MPH or MBA. This implies that having a second degree that isn’t a Ph.D. doesn’t appear to help your chances of matching into internal medicine.

Internal Medicine other degree MBA MPH advantage 2022

Having another degree like an MBA or MPH correlated with a 0% match rate disadvantage for internal medicine in the 2022 Match

It’s important to note that this study only looked at the overall match rates of medical students with another degree. The data doesn’t look at the type of degree, the school it was obtained from, and the quality of the applicant’s experience and credentials.

Having a second degree could open up some additional career opportunities. For instance, having an MPH or MBA may prove beneficial for those looking to go into healthcare administration or research.

Concluding Thoughts

Becoming an intensivist is a challenging but rewarding career path. It is perfect for those who love high-pressure functioning, being decisive, problem-solving, and working as part of a team in intense situations. With hard work, dedication, and a desire to help others, intensivists can make a real difference in the world of healthcare.

Looking for an Internal Medicine Residency Advisor?

Looking for an internal medicine residency advisor? Want help writing your personal statement? Need effective strategies for interviewing? Do you have things on your application – e.g., low USMLE scores, failed USMLEs, no research, IMG status, or others – you need help overcoming?

Be sure to check out our Residency Advisor service.

Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.