A doctor who specializes in issues of the heart is called a cardiologist. According to the American College of Cardiology, cardiologists are trained to find, treat and help prevent diseases that attack the blood vessels and the heart. Under the term cardiologist, there are a few types, each specializing in a different area of heart treatment. However, there are other doctors who specialize in heart issues, such as cardiac surgeons, who are not listed as cardiologists.
The heart is a vitally important organ within your body, pumping oxygen-rich blood to the parts that need the oxygen, and oxygen-poor blood back toward your lungs. Considering the importance of the heart, it’s not surprising that there are different types of cardiac specialists, or heart doctors, all with different purposes when it comes to maintaining the health of this elaborately structured organ. If you’re looking to specialize in cardiac medicine, career paths you can choose from include cardiology, vascular surgery, electrophysiology and cardiac surgery.
A cardiologist treats patients for heart disorders related to blood vessels and blockages. Patients who’ve had heart attacks or experienced some other problem with the functioning of the heart are initially referred to this type of heart doctor. To become a cardiologist, you start by attending medical school for four years. Once you’ve earned your medical degree, you spend three years training in the field of general internal medicine and a minimum of a further three years training in your chosen specialty. After completing these 10 years of training, you can become certified by preparing for and sitting in the American Board of Internal Medicine’s two-day examination.
A cardiologist treats a wide range of problems that affect the heart and blood vessels. When someone is dealing with a medical issue that involves the heart, a cardiologist is generally the first stop. If the heart issue requires specialized treatment, the cardiologist will refer the patient on to a type of cardiologist who specializes in the necessary procedure.
Vascular surgeons perform minimal invasive surgery that treats conditions related to the veins and arteries lying outside the heart that are nevertheless connected to the organ. Becoming a vascular surgeon involves completing a vascular surgery residency program upon finishing medical school. Residency programs are usually hospital-based, and vascular surgery residencies typically last for five years. Upon completing your training, you will be eligible to sit for the Vascular Surgery Qualifying and Certifying Examinations in order to receive certification from the American Board of Surgery.
An interventional cardiologist performs non-invasive procedures needed by heart patients. According to Brigham and Women’s Medical Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School, interventional cardiologists treat patients who are dealing with coronary artery disease, heart valve disease, and peripheral vascular disease. The ICs perform procedures such as angioplasty and stenting (inserting a balloon into the artery to increase blood flow, and implanting a mesh balloon in the artery to keep it open), carotid artery stenting, embolic protection (using filters to catch loose pieces of arterial plaque), atherectomy (small blades cut plaque off arterial walls), and mitral valve repair.
An electrophysiologist examines the heart’s electrical impulses, which are responsible for heart beat rates. If a patient’s heart beat rate is too low or high, the electrophysiologist explores the possibility of an imminent heart attack or some other underlying problem. To become an electrophysiologist, you must first earn a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree, following it up with three years on a cardiovascular disease fellowship program and a further year of training in a clinical cardiac electrophysiology setting. If you go on to commit at least half of your professional time and effort to the field after completing this training, you’ll be eligible for certification in electrophysiology from the American Board of Internal Medicine.
An electrophysiologist has extended training in issues that involve diagnosing and treating abnormal heart rhythms. They determine if the patient is at risk for sudden cardiac arrest by performing tests such as an electrophysiology study, in which they send signals to the heart muscle to see if the patient will develop ventricular tachycardia, or a rapid heart beat. Another test they perform is an electrocardiogram, done in the hospital or by sending the patient home with a halter monitor. The Heart Rhythm Foundation reports that the field of electrophysiology is the fastest growing specialty in cardiology.
A pediatric cardiologist specializes in heart health care for infants and children. When an infant or child exhibits, or is suspected of, a heart abnormality, the specialty of a pediatric cardiologist is sought out. She makes a determination as to what type of cardiac testing should be done on the patient, as well as the cardiac procedures that may be ordered. According to the American College of Cardiology, some cardiologists maintain the doctor/patient relationship until the patient is 18.
To become the type of surgeon responsible for carrying out surgery on the heart and the great vessels, you need in excess of five years of training, typically even after completing four years of medical school. Traditionally, the first five years of training is spent on a general surgery residency training program and is followed by specific training in cardiothoracic surgery, which takes two or three years. However, there are now alternative training pathways. For example, as reported by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons, certain institutions offer a six-year program that allows medical students to transition directly into the specialized cardiothoracic path.
The cardiac surgeon is a cardiologist that performs highly invasive cardiac procedures. These include heart by-pass surgeries and other types of open-heart surgery. The vascular surgeon performs procedures on blood vessels that are related to the heart, but outside of the heart. Rochester General Hospital states that the procedures that most often require a vascular surgeon involve atherosclerosis, in which the arterial walls become thick due to plaque build up, and thrombophlebitis, which is the swelling of the veins from blood clots. Both cardiac and vascular surgeons work closely with cardiologists in treating conditions that affect the heart.
2016 Salary Information for Physicians and Surgeons
Physicians and surgeons earned a median annual salary of $204,950 in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. On the low end, physicians and surgeons earned a 25th percentile salary of $131,980, meaning 75 percent earned more than this amount. The 75th percentile salary is $261,170, meaning 25 percent earn more. In 2016, 713,800 people were employed in the U.S. as physicians and surgeons.