A cardiologist is a physician with advanced training in diseases of the heart and circulatory system. After medical school, a cardiologist completes a three-year residency in internal medicine plus an additional three years specializing in cardiology. To become board-certified, the physician must also pass examinations from the American Board of Internal Medicine. Patients visit a cardiologist when their primary physician suspects problems or when they experience symptoms such as chest pains or dizziness.
A cardiologist meets with the patient at all stages of disease, beginning when the patient first starts to experience symptoms. At each visit, the cardiologist checks the patient's history and performs an exam. For example, she may listen to the patient's heart and lungs, weigh her and check her blood pressure. She gives the patient a chance to express concerns and recommends treatments -- such as exercise or medication. In some cases, she recommends additional testing.
Cardiologists use tests such as echocardiograms and ambulatory electrocardiograms to measure the performance of the heart and diagnose abnormalities. An echocardiogram uses sound to make a picture of your heart, while an ambulatory ECG makes a record of your heart while you're active. Cardiologists also sometimes give an exercise stress tests to test your heart's limits. In this test, you walk on a treadmill at various speeds while hooked up to a heart monitor.
Making a Diagnosis
Through reviewing test results and listening to patient symptoms, a cardiologist diagnoses the patient's cardiovascular problem. The doctor then explains the test results and diagnosis to the patient, using diagrams or models of the heart if necessary. Catching diseases early can help prevent a heart attack or a vascular aneurysm.
Some cardiologists are trained to use a catheter to diagnose heart problems. This involves placing a small tube with a camera into an artery near the heart, which the doctor can then use to take pictures, helping to get a clearer picture of what is going on inside.
Once the cardiologist finds a problem, he works with the patient to treat it. Recommended treatments can range from dietary changes to medication to surgery. In some cases, the cardiologist does minimally invasive surgeries, such as placing stints or pacemakers. However, a cardiologist doesn't do major surgery. When patients need bypass, for example, he refers them to a surgeon.
Post-treatment, the cardiologist continues to monitor the progress of the patient, running more tests to see how well the treatment is taking. She schedules regular check-ups and make recommendations of further treatment. As the patient's health improves, she sometimes decreases medications. In some cases, people with heart disease must visit the cardiologist for approval before having other procedures, such as surgery or major dental work.