Most people think of cardiologists as heart doctors. While this assessment is essentially accurate, a cardiologist has other responsibilities as well. Cardiologists are doctors who specialize in not only the heart but also the entire cardiovascular system, including blood vessels and veins. A primary physician who detects a potential cardiovascular problem sends patients to a cardiologist for more study. The cardiologist performs tests to determine if problems exist with the heart, arteries and veins.
Prospective cardiologists first attend four years of medical school at an accredited university. After medical school, they enter a residency program to receive hands-on internal medicine training. Residency programs for cardiologists last three years. After you complete your residency training, you need an additional two or more years of specialized cardiology training before you can practice on your own. After at least 10 years of training, you can take the American Board of Internal Medicine test to become certified as a cardiologist.
On any given day, a cardiologist sees several patients who have existing problems with their cardiovascular systems and others who believe they may have problems. Often these patients are new clients referred by a primary physician. The cardiologist goes over each patient's medical history, relevant symptoms and current physical condition. Cardiologists listen to the heart for murmurs and other irregularities and often order further tests for a precise diagnosis.
The most common cardiology test is the electrocardiogram. An EKG displays the electrical activity of your heart and reveals certain heart problems. While a primary physician may perform the initial EKG, cardiologists have a better understanding of the nuances of EKG readings. Often a cardiologist performs a type of EKG known as a stress or exercise test. During a stress test, the patient perform simple exercises while hooked up to a monitoring device. Changes in heart patterns based on the level of activity help the cardiologist recognize any potential problems. In addition to EKGs, cardiologists use blood tests, ultrasound imaging and chest X-rays to determine cardiovascular disorders.
While cardiologists can learn a lot about a person's cardiovascular system from EKGs, stress tests, X-rays and blood tests, they sometimes may need to perform an invasive procedural test known as a catheterization. During a catheterization, a cardiologist places a small tube into a vein in the leg or arm. The cardiologist then moves the tube through the body's venous system until it reaches the heart. When it is in the heart, the tube takes pictures, gives blood pressure readings, measures heart electricity and can clear some plaque blockage. Not all cardiologists perform catherizations because additional specialized training is required.
The exact role of a cardiologist depends on his specialization. Some cardiologists help patients who have suffered heart attacks or other cardiovascular conditions start to lead heart-healthy lives. Cardiologists use strategies such as lifestyle changes to lower patients' cholesterol levels and monitor their heart conditions. Other cardiologists complete further training to insert pacemakers that regulate a patient's heart.