Heart surgeons and cardiologists occupy two distinct branches of medicine: surgery and internal medicine. In cardiology, however, there is another subdivision that includes procedures similar to surgery -- interventional cardiology. Perhaps because there are similarities in training for all three specialties, and all focus on heart and vascular disease, salaries don't vary significantly among these specialties.
Heart surgeons, more correctly called cardiovascular surgeons, perform surgery on the heart, lungs and blood vessels. Although the coronary artery bypass graft -- more familiarly known as a CABG, or open heart surgery -- may be one of the more common procedures a heart surgeon performs, he also performs other procedures. Heart surgeons spend an extended time in residency and fellowship training compared to other medical specialties, as they complete a five-year general surgical residency before going on to two years in a cardiothoracic surgery residency.
Cardiologists begin their career as internists. They must be board-certified in internal medicine before they can go on for a fellowship in cardiology, which typically lasts another three or more years. Cardiologists include interventional or invasive cardiologists who perform procedures such as cardiac catheterizations, which can identify heart blockages or defects that may require surgery. An interventional cardiologist is trained in both basic cardiology and interventional cardiology. Either type of cardiologist, however, can manage patients with heart problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure or other heart and vascular problems.
Although heart surgeons and both kinds of cardiologists are physicians, surgical practice is very different from medical practice. A non-invasive cardiologist uses medications and lifestyle changes to help patients with heart disease, while surgeons provide therapy with a scalpel. Interventional cardiologists use non-invasive strategies but also add invasive procedures to diagnose and treat blockages or defects. Non-invasive cardiologists are particularly likely to treat patients over a long period of time, while a heart surgeon may see a patient only once in a lifetime.
Merritt Hawkins reported stating salaries ranging from $270,000 to $525,000 a year for non-invasive cardiologists in 2010-2011. The range for interventional cardiologists was $380,000 to $650,000 a year. Cejka Search, another physician recruiting firm, reported median annual salaries of $430,316 for cardiologists and $544,087 for cardio-thoracic surgeons. The firm did not distinguish between cardiology and interventional cardiology. Profiles Database, a graduate physician placement firm, found that average starting salaries for cardiothoracic surgeons began at $360,000 a year and rose to $522,875 with six years of experience. Profiles Database reported that cardiologists earned an average of $272,000 when starting out and $402,000 after six years. Becker’s Hospital Review reported that cardiovascular surgeons averaged $560,659 in 2010.
The educational process for both heart surgery and cardiology is very time-consuming. In making a choice among these medical specialties, the primary issues would be whether you prefer medical or surgical patient management. Cardiologists are more likely to have ongoing patient contact, if long-term patient relationships are important to you.