Cardiologists are specialists who diagnose, treat and manage heart conditions. There are many reasons people seek out cardiology care, from confirming a diagnosis and managing a chronic heart condition to discussing treatment options.
It can be unsettling news to find out you need to see a cardiologist, but doing your research and making an informed choice about who to choose can help ensure you find the right cardiologist for you.
Signs You Should See a Cardiologist
People experiencing symptoms that may be cardiac-related or who have cardiovascular risk factors should start by discussing their concerns with their primary care provider.
“In most cases, a primary care provider will refer patients to a cardiologist,” said Christopher Mueller, MD, a Froedtert & MCW cardiologist. “But, if your symptoms are persistent, you’re not satisfied with the approach your primary care provider is recommending or you would like another opinion, it is reasonable for you to seek out care with a heart specialist.”
Heart Disease Symptoms
• Chest pain: This can feel like a dull ache, pressure, tightness, burning or a sharp stabbing pain. While there are other causes of chest pain unrelated to the heart, new or unexplained chest pain or chest pain that occurs or worsens with activity can be a sign the heart is not getting enough blood.
• Swelling in the legs: Also known as edema, fluid retention in the feet, ankles and legs can be caused by congestive heart failure. When the heart cannot work as well as it should, blood flow slows and backs up in the veins of the body’s lower extremities.
• Shortness of breath, palpitations and dizziness: These symptoms could be signs of an abnormal heart rhythm, also called an arrhythmia. There are many different types of arrhythmias, but all of them are due to a problem with the electrical impulses in the heart that cause it to beat too quickly (tachycardia) or too slowly (bradycardia.)
Heart Disease Risk Factors
Risk factors for heart disease include conditions such as high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as obesity, smoking, leading a sedentary lifestyle, a family history of heart disease and age.
A cardiologist can recommend preventive strategies, order heart and vascular screenings or diagnostic testing and prescribe medications to help you lower your risk. People who already have a heart or vascular diagnosis may benefit from a second opinion. A second opinion can confirm a diagnosis or present new options for care.
Types of Cardiologists
You have plenty of options when looking to establish care with a cardiologist. The first step to finding the right cardiologist for you is to choose someone who specializes in treating your symptoms or condition.
The field of cardiovascular care has many specialties and subspecialties, which means there are many different types of cardiologists:
• General cardiologists: physicians who diagnose and treat disorders of the heart and circulatory system
• Cardiothoracic surgeons: physicians who perform surgical procedures on the heart, lungs and chest
• Electrophysiologists: physicians who are heart rhythm experts and can diagnose and treat heart rhythm abnormalities
• Interventional cardiologists: physicians who specialize in minimally invasive, catheter-based procedures to treat blocked blood vessels in the heart
• Adult congenital cardiologists: physicians who treat people living with congenital heart disease
• Heart failure and transplant cardiologists: physicians who specialize in diagnosing, treating and managing people who are in advanced heart failure, including heart transplant candidates and recipients
Vascular physicians and surgeons treat issues in the circulatory system, outside the chest. Clogged blood vessels are a common reason for people to seek cardiology care. For this reason, cardiologists work closely with vascular specialists, and your doctor may refer you to physicians in both specialties for the same condition.
How To Choose a Cardiologist
If you need to see a cardiologist, your primary care provider’s referral or a recommendation from friends and family is a good place to start. However, doctor-patient relationships are unique, and it is important to choose a cardiologist who fits your communication style.
Hospital online staff directories are a good resource to explore before you make an appointment. Directories should list each physician’s specialty and credentials, and you will usually find a profile photo and a short biography. In some cases, a video will be available to help you get to know the doctor. You can also read patient reviews.
“It’s important to choose a cardiologist who you’ll feel comfortable with,” Dr. Mueller said. “Use the information available to decide if you’ll be able to relate and have an honest conversation together about your health and your needs.”
When searching for a cardiologist, you should consider his or her experience with your particular heart concern. The more experience the cardiologist has with treating a condition or performing a specific procedure, the better your prognosis is likely to be. Many health care quality studies have been published that show a direct connection between centers with high patient volumes and better outcomes. One factor that can influence experience is if the cardiologist has ties to an academic medical center.
“Not only are we treating more people with a given condition and therefore have greater expertise with that condition, we work closely with a whole team of cardiology and vascular specialists who we can consult with about your case,” Dr. Mueller said. “Also, as physicians at academic medical centers, we have knowledge of and access to lifesaving clinical trials, and we are all up to date on the newest procedures, techniques, advanced therapies and medications.”
If you’re seeking a second opinion for your cardiology condition, an appointment with a cardiologist who specializes in your condition and is affiliated with an academic medical center is strongly recommended. But even if you have a more common condition, it can be beneficial to establish your cardiology care at a center with specialty and advanced care options.
“You will have faster access to a team of specialists who can help you take preventive measure, even outside of your cardiology care,” Dr. Mueller said. “You’ll have that support and expertise immediately available should your heart condition require a higher level of care.”
Considering credentials when selecting a cardiologist is also important. Your cardiologist should be board-certified in cardiovascular disease by the American Board of Medical Specialties, which means he or she has completed an internal medicine residency and a cardiology fellowship following their medical education.
Residencies and fellowships provide physicians with additional years of training under experts in their medical field. Additional board certifications are available in the various subspecialties of cardiology, such as interventional cardiology, echocardiography and advanced heart failure and transplant cardiology.
Before scheduling an appointment, check with your insurance company to see if the cardiologist you’re considering is in network. If the cardiologist is out-of-network, familiarize yourself with your insurance plan’s out-of-network benefits.
Preparing for Your First Cardiology Appointment
If you were referred to a cardiologist by your primary care provider, it’s important to understand why. Ask your doctor to explain the reason for your referral and to go over your test results with you. Having a good understanding of this information will make it easier to discuss your treatment options with the cardiologist.
Your first appointment with a cardiologist will likely be longer than follow-up appointments, so coming prepared will ensure you make the most of it. There will be time to get to know each other, for the cardiologist to work with you on a treatment plan and for you to ask questions.
“Be willing to share and don’t be afraid to ask what’s on your mind,” Dr. Mueller said. “It’s important to feel like you’re being listened to and heard, and we’re there to answer your questions and to help alleviate your concerns.”