Doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions or diseases of the cardiovascular system (the heart and blood vessels) are called heart doctors or cardiologists. These specialists are trained to identify, treat, and help prevent heart issues. There are also different types of cardiologists, who specialize in different areas of heart treatment.
Let's take a look at the different types of heart doctors, their qualification, and expertise below.
Types of Heart Doctors
1. General Cardiologist
A cardiologist treats people with a wide range of heart problems that affect the blood vessels including blockages. Cardiologists are usually the first stop when a person has heart-related issues. People who have had heart attacks are also initially referred to cardiologists. If specialized treatment is needed for your heart problem, your cardiologist may refer you to a specific type of cardiologist, who specializes in the treatment or procedure required for your condition.
To become a heart doctor, aspiring cardiologists need to have a bachelor's degree and four years of medical school. After earning a medical degree, three years are spent in general internal medicine training and at least three years more of training on each chosen specialty. They should also become licensed physicians in their state along with passing a certification examination in their chosen specialty.
2. Pediatric Cardiologist
Pediatric cardiologists specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of a number of heart problems in infants and children. Children who are born with structural differences of the heart and problems with the heart's electrical system also need a pediatric cardiologist for close monitoring and treatment of their condition. Pediatric cardiologists also closely work with pediatric heart surgeons to help determine the best medical intervention or treatment for children who might need a heart surgery.
Pediatric cardiologists have completed at least four years of medical school, three years of residency, and three or more years of training in pediatric cardiology. Some of them even spend 1-2 years of their fellowship training focusing on special skills that can diagnose and treat cardiac problems in children. These training areas include the following:
- Electrophysiology (involves the heart's electrical system)
- Heart failure and heart transplantation
- Pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) or specialized cardiac ICU (CICU)
- Adult congenital heart disease (adults who were born with heart problems)
- Cardiac catheterization
- Advanced imaging techniques (ultrasound, CT scan, and MRI scan)
3. Interventional Cardiologist
Cardiologists may refer their patients to a general or interventional cardiologist if their patients need an angiogram to obtain more accurate information regarding clogged arteries.
An interventional cardiologist usually performs non-invasive procedures. They also treat patients who have heart valve disease, coronary artery disease, and peripheral vascular disease. They also perform the following procedures:
- Mitral valve repair
- Carotid artery stenting
- Angioplasty and stenting
- Embolic protection
Interventional cardiologists are specially trained in diagnosing and treating diseases of the cardiovascular system through catheter-based procedures, such as angioplasty and stent placement. They often spend most of their time performing these procedures in hospitals.
When patients have an irregular heartbeat, they may need to see another type of cardiologist called an electrophysiologist aside from their heart doctor. Electrophysiologists focus on the study of the heart's electrical system and specifically diagnose and treat heart rhythm disorders or heart arrhythmias. These heart problems include irregular heartbeats, such as tachycardia (fast resting heart rate) and bradycardia (abnormally slow heart rate).
In most cases, electrophysiologists treat patients with atrial fibrillation or AFib. This type of heart arrhythmia occurs when the upper chambers of the heart or the atria irregularly contract. In the U.S., the most common type of heart arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation. It is also a leading cause of blood clots, which can lead to stroke.
In the past, pacemaker insertion was the only way to correct heart irregularities. However, the use of pacemakers has been reduced due to the introduction of electrophysiology. Electrophysiologists also perform other surgical procedures, such as cardiac ablation and drug therapy to help manage arrhythmias.
Electrophysiologists have a degree in Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) followed by a three-year fellowship program and a year of training in clinical cardiac electrophysiology.
5. Cardiac Surgeon
A cardiac surgeon is a type of cardiologist who performs many different types of cardiac procedures, which include heart defect repair
Cardiac surgeons are specially trained in operating and repairing heart and blood vessel damages caused by cardiovascular diseases or disorders. They also perform surgical procedures that involve the body's blood vessels such as the aorta. Today, heart surgery may also include the use of mechanical devices, such as ventricular assist devices (VADs) to help the heart pump blood all over the body.
To become a cardiac surgeon, you will need four years of medical school, five years of surgical residency, and an additional 2-3 years of fellowship specializing in cardiothoracic surgery. Moreover, those who want to specialize in heart transplant surgeries or pediatric cardiology may undergo additional training. Cardiac surgeons are certified by the American Board of Medical Specialists before getting certified for cardiothoracic surgery.
6. Vascular Surgeon
Vascular surgeons are specialists in the vascular system. They specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases of the veins and arteries that are connected to the heart. They perform minimally invasive procedures such as:
- Laser ablation
- Injection sclerotherapy
- Catheter-based techniques (atherectomy, angioplasty, stenting, etc.)
- By-pass operations
Cardiac and vascular surgeons also work closely together with cardiologists when it comes to treating patients with heart conditions. The most common procedures that require the expertise of a vascular surgeon are those that involve atherosclerosis and thrombophlebitis.
To become a vascular surgeon, four years of medical school are needed to be followed by a vascular surgery residency program. These residency programs usually take place in hospitals and typically take five years to complete.
Patients are often referred to a vascular surgeon if they regularly complain about leg pain or when they have peripheral arterial disease. Those who belong to the high-risk category, such as people who smoke, have high blood pressure, and diabetes, are more inclined to see a vascular surgeon.