Most people think of cardiologists as heart doctors. While this assessment is essentially accurate, a cardiologist has many other responsibilities as well. Cardiologists are doctors who specialise in not only the heart but the entire cardiovascular system, including blood vessels and veins. If your regular physician detects a potential cardiovascular problem, she will often send you to a cardiologist for more in-depth study. A cardiologist will perform tests to determine what, if any, problems exist with your heart, arteries and veins.
To become a cardiologist, you must first attend 4 years of medical school at an accredited university. After medical school, potential cardiologists enter a residency program to receive hands-on internal medicine training. Residency programs for cardiologists last 3 years. Once you complete your residency training, you need an additional 2 or more years of specialised cardiology training before you can practice on your own. After at least 10 years of training, you may take the American Board of Internal Medicine test to become certified as a cardiologist.
On any given day, a cardiologist will see several patients who have existing problems with their cardiovascular system and others who believe they may have problems. Often these patients will be new clients referred by a primary physician. The cardiologist will go over the patient's medical history, relevant symptoms and current physical condition. Cardiologists will listen to the heart for murmurs and other irregularities and will often order further tests for precise diagnosis.
The most common cardiological test is the electrocardiogram (ECG). An ECG displays the electrical activity of your heart. Certain heart problems such as right bundle branch block will appear on an ECG reading. While your regular physician may perform an initial ECG, cardiologists will have a better understanding of the nuances of your ECG reading.
Often a cardiologist will perform a type of ECG known as a stress or exercise test. During a stress test, you will perform simple exercises while hooked up to a monitoring device. Changes in heart patterns based on your level of activity will help the cardiologist recognise any potential problems. In addition to ECGs, cardiologists use blood tests, ultrasound imaging and chest X-rays to determine cardiovascular disorders.
While cardiologists can learn a lot about a person's cardiovascular system from ECGs, stress tests, X-rays and blood tests, they sometimes may need to perform a more invasive procedural test known as a catheterisation. During a catheterisation, a cardiologist places a small tube into a vein in the leg or arm. The cardiologist will then move the tube through the body's venous system until it reaches the heart. Once in the heart, the tube has the ability to take pictures, give blood pressure readings, measure heart electricity and even clear some plaque blockage. Not all cardiologists perform catherizations, since additional specialised training is required.
The exact role of your cardiologist will depend on his specialisation and what advice you require. Many cardiologists help patients who have suffered heart attacks or other cardiovascular conditions start to lead heart-healthy lives. Cardiologists use strategies such as lifestyle changes to lower patients' cholesterol levels and monitor their heart conditions. Other cardiologists will have further training that allows them to insert pacemakers to help regulate a patient's heart.