For those suffering from any issue concerning their heart, a cardiologist is the one who will guide you through your treatment and monitor your progress.
Cardiology is the study of the heart and blood vessels. Cardiologists can diagnose and treat heart attacks, heart failure, and heart rhythm disturbances. They also are involved during serious procedures like cardiac catheterization, balloon angioplasty, or heart surgery. “Most people think about seeing a cardiologist after they’ve had something happen like a heart attack or a diagnosis of heart disease,” says Dr. Joanne Foody, director of the cardiovascular program at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and editor of CardioSmart.org.
“Definitely anyone who has heart disease should see a cardiologist, but they’re also good to see if you are at risk for heart disease and want to be proactive in preventing it.” She also says that if you have a strong family history of early heart disease, it might be helpful to explore that with a cardiologist as opposed to your primary care physician because cardiologists tend to be more aggressive in looking for warning signs and offering suggestions.
When you do visit a cardiologist, they become almost like your primary caregiver. They help with day-to-day management, come up with a treatment plan, run further diagnostic tests, perform any procedures that need to happen, and help coordinate everything with your internist. “Heart disease is so complex and can impact so many aspects of one’s life that many patients tend to see their cardiologist as their main physician,” says Dr. Foody.
What to Look For
As with most specialists, you should start with the basics. “The American Heart Association doesn’t have a referral program, so you should get recommendations from your primary care doctor and always check to make sure they’re covered by your insurance,” says Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist and medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health in New York. “Also make sure they’re board certified, which that means they have to adhere to a certain level of quality care.”
Beyond that, Dr. Goldberg recommends finding a cardiologist who is affiliated with a medical school or a teaching hospital. “To maintain privileges at teaching hospitals and medical schools, your credentials are reviewed every year or two,” she says. “As a result, those cardiologists will always be kept abreast of cutting-edge technology.”
There are also subspecialties within cardiology you should know about. “It’s important to identify a cardiologist who specializes in the area in which you need them,” says Dr. Foody. “If you have heart failure, see a heart failure specialist. Same goes for if you have atrial fibrillation—see a cardiac electrophysiologist who specializes in heart rhythm disturbances. Heart disease is so significant that you want to make sure you get the right information, which is why seeing someone who specializes in your exact problem is so important.”
As for other things to look for, Dr. Foody says to see if the cardiologist is a fellow at the American College of Cardiology or the American Heart Association. Those doctors tend to be more engaged in their practice and are the most updated with the latest procedures and studies. Also, if possible, try to get a cardiologist who is connected to a larger institution, like a university or hospital. That way, if you have a complex issue, they can refer to other doctors for help who may know more about what you’re going through.
Questions to Ask
Even if a cardiologist has all the credentials listed above, you should still find out a little more about him or her. “Figure out how available the doctor is, how easy it is to make appointments, how you can get in touch with them if there’s an emergency, stuff like that,” says Dr. Foody. “But ultimately it comes down to how you two personally interact. I think the most important thing is to sit down and have a conversation and figure out if their approach and philosophy is consistent with how you want to be managed with the type of heart disease you have.”
Make sure your doctor understands your family history and lifestyle so he or she can effectively determine your risk for heart disease and make recommendations to reduce those risks. Take charge of managing your own heart health by asking your doctor these questions:
- How will you determine my risk for heart disease? What screening and diagnostic tests will you conduct?
- What is my heart disease risk and how will it change over the next 10 years?
- How does my family history affect my risk for heart disease?
- Should I see a dietician to help me develop a heart-healthy diet?
- How often should I come back to check up on my heart?