Heart disease is the number one killer in the U.S. Nearly one in four deaths in the U.S. are the result of heart disease, and more than 600,000 Americans died of heart disease in 2012. Many of these deaths could have been prevented or at least significantly delayed by a visit to a cardiologist, a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the heart and blood vessels. Cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons are separate medical professions.
Earning a bachelor's degree is the first step toward becoming a cardiologist. Medical schools do not require applicants to have a degree in chemistry or biology, but an undergraduate background in the natural sciences will serve you in good stead in med school. The first two years of medical school are spent in intensive classroom study including biochemistry, pharmacology, anatomy and physiology. The final two years of med school are spent working with experienced physicians through a rotation of different clinical settings.
Residency and Board Certification
After graduating from medical school, aspiring cardiologists must complete a three-year internal medicine residency and a three-year cardiology internship or fellowship. Residents work directly with patients under the supervision of an experienced physician. Earning a board certification means passing the comprehensive exam on all aspects of cardiovascular disease offered by the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Cardiologists perform a wide range of duties in diagnosing and treating patients with heart disease and related conditions. An exam by a cardiologist begins with a review of your medical history, then a physical exam which typically includes checking blood pressure, weight, heart, lungs, and blood vessels. Your cardiologist may suggest additional tests such as an ECG, X-ray, or further blood work. Based on the results of the exams, your cardiologist may suggest lifestyle changes or medications or consultation with an additional specialist.
Cardiologist vs. Cardiovascular Surgeon
A cardiologist is not a cardiovascular or heart surgeon. The surgeons who perform open heart surgery to repair blockages or perform heart transplants have had extensive surgical training during their residencies. However, some cardiologists undertake additional training so they can perform minor test-related procedures that require incisions, and a few even install pacemakers.
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