A doctor who specializes in issues of the heart is called a cardiologist. According to the American College of Cardiology, these physicians are trained to find, treat and help prevent diseases that attack this vital organ as well as the body's blood vessels.
But the term cardiologist encompasses a few specialists who each focus on a different area of heart treatment. Here, we'll break down what you need to know about these highly trained health care professionals.
A general cardiologist treats a wide range of problems that affect the heart and blood vessels. When someone is diagnosed with either a heart or vascular condition by their primary care physician, the patient usually is then referred to a general cardiologist. After obtaining the patient's medical history and evaluating his or her symptoms, the doctor may recommend additional testing.
If the cardiologist concludes that the heart condition requires a procedure or surgery, he or she will refer the patient to a type of cardiologist who specializes in the necessary treatment, according to the Texas Heart Institute.
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An interventional cardiologist performs non-invasive procedures that focus on catheter-based management of heart disease, states the American College of Physicians. These specialists treat various cardiovascular conditions, such as valve disease, congenital heart abnormalities and ischemic heart disease (of which the most common type is coronary artery disease). The latter involves the hardening and narrowing of the arteries that supply blood to the heart, explains the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.
A common procedure performed by interventional cardiologists is angioplasty. According to the Mayo Clinic, this procedure involves temporarily inserting a balloon into the artery to increase blood flow, followed by implanting a permanent mesh tube (or stent) in the artery to keep it open.
Another procedure often performed by these doctors is valvuloplasty, which uses X-ray imaging to insert a catheter with a balloon on the tip into a heart valve, in order to widen it and allow for better blood flow, according to the Mayo Clinic.
An electrophysiologist (or cardiac EP) has extended training — two additional years beyond the required training of a cardiologist — in cardiovascular issues that involve diagnosing and treating abnormal heart rhythms, otherwise known as arrhythmias, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. EPs review the results of various tests that may be ordered by a cardiologist, including a stress test (which monitors how the heart reacts during exercise), an echocardiogram (which uses sound waves to show images of the heart's structure and how it functions) and an electrocardiogram (which involves placing electrodes on the chest in order to record the heart's electrical activity). The EP then determines whether any arrhythmias detected in these tests warrant treatment.
Along with prescribing medicine, these specialists can also treat arrhythmias by either implanting a device in the body that's designed to reset or control the heart (like a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter defibrillator) or performing a procedure that will have the same effect (such as a defibrillation, a technique that delivers a controlled electric shock to the heart).
A pediatric cardiologist specializes in heart health care for infants and children. Since the type of heart problems that can affect a baby, toddler or child are different from the heart problems that affect adults, a pediatric cardiologist might be called on if the child's primary care physician (pediatrician) has concerns about his or her cardiovascular system.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, these specialists practice in numerous settings, including children's hospitals, university medical centers and large community hospitals, as well as private offices.
Surgeons Who Work Closely With Cardiologists
There are two types of surgeons who are not classified as cardiologists but specialize in the surgical treatment of the heart and/or its corresponding blood vessels.
Cardiothoracic surgeon: This doctor specializes in diseases that stem from the organs in the chest, as well as in the bony structures and tissues that form in the chest cavity, including the heart, lungs and esophagus, according to The Society of Thoracic Surgeons. A specialist under this title can also be referred to as a cardiac surgeon.
These doctors perform highly invasive cardiac procedures, such as heart valve repair and replacement, heart defect repair, coronary artery bypass and heart and lung transplantation, states the Texas Heart Institute.
Vascular surgeon: According to the Inova Heart and Vascular Institute, a vascular surgeon performs procedures within the vascular system, which is the network of blood vessels — the veins, arteries and capillaries — that transport blood to and from the heart.
These doctors are trained to perform open, complicated surgeries, as well as minimally invasive endovascular procedures, such as treating an aneurysm (a swelling or "ballooning" of the blood vessel), states the Society for Vascular Surgery.
- American College of Cardiology: "What is a cardiologist?"
- Texas Heart Institute: "What is a cardiologist?"
- American College of Physicians: "Interventional Cardiology"
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Ischemic Heart Disease"
- Mayo Clinic: "Coronary angioplasty and stents"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "The Clinical Cardiac Electrophysiologist"
- American Academy of Pediatrics: "What is a pediatric cardiologist?"
- The Society of Thoracic Surgeons: "What is a cardiothoracic surgeon?"
- Texas Heart Institute: "What is a cardiovascular surgeon?"
- MedlinePlus: "Coronary Artery Disease"
- Inova Heart and Vascular Institute: "Defining Heart Specialists"
- Society for Vascular Surgery: "What is a Vascular Surgeon?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Mitral valve repair and mitral valve replacement"