What does a Cardiologist do?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A cardiologist is a medical doctor who specializes in the heart, and most of his or her work is made up of diagnosing conditions, working to treat and cure specific ailments, and helping heart patients improve their quality of life. People in this field usually spend a lot of time working on teams with other medical specialists, but the specifics of their day-to-day responsibilities can vary depending on the choices they’ve made when it comes to specialization. Experts can choose to work just with children, for instance, or they can focus on a specific ailment like a heart murmur; others decide to use their skills for research, or for the development of drugs and new treatment trials. What everyone in the field shares, though, is a deep knowledge of the heart and cardiovascular system and a commitment to treating and ideally healing patients.

Cardiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions of the heart.
Cardiologists specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions of the heart.

Basic Responsibilities

Like almost any medical professional, a cardiologist’s primary job is to care for patients and keep them healthy. Where general practitioners may see people with a range of different conditions and diseases, however, a cardiologist typically only deals with things related to the heart. This does not mean that there is no variety, though. There are a lot of different things that can go wrong with the heart, from congenital defects to damage caused by accident or illness. Most cardiologists are expected to be experts on all aspects of the heart so that they can diagnose and treat a range of different things, and as a result this is a job that requires a lot of training and an almost constant attention to detail.

Those experiencing persistent shortness of breath may be referred by their general physician to a cardiologist.
Those experiencing persistent shortness of breath may be referred by their general physician to a cardiologist.

Referrals and Follow-Up

Cardiologists typically work as members of much larger patient teams that include general practitioners and other specialists. In most places, people who worry that they are having trouble with their hearts or who have symptoms of cardiac problems like shortness of breath or chest pressure must first be evaluated by a general physician who in turn makes a referral to a cardiologist. If the cardiologist discerns that something like an operation is required, he or she may again refer the patient to a cardiothoracic surgeon.

A doctor may need to spend time studying a patient's chart to come up with a diagnosis.
A doctor may need to spend time studying a patient's chart to come up with a diagnosis.

Referring a patient does not usually mean that a physician ends communication or care, though. Most cardiologists stay in very close communication with all people involved in treating a particular patient. On a practical level, this means that he or she must regularly brief these other professionals about what is going on, and must also take their recommendations and advice into account when drawing up treatment plans.

Patients with heart conditions often have a cardiovascular specialist as a member of their care team.
Patients with heart conditions often have a cardiovascular specialist as a member of their care team.

Diagnostic Role

One of the most important thing heart doctors do is make diagnoses, which is to say that they figure out what is wrong when a patient comes in with problems. They usually start by studying a patient’s chart and personal medical history, since things like heart disease are often believed to be hereditary. Most will also perform a basic exam and may order tests and imaging sessions to get a better look at what is going on inside the patient’s chest.

Once a cardiologist has a basic sense of a person’s heart health, he or she will come up with an appropriate treatment plan to fix any problems. Sometimes the answers are easy, like prescribing blood pressure medication or advising a lifestyle with more exercise and less fatty foods. Depending on the condition, though, treatment is often complex, and there aren’t always simple solutions. Experts often spend a lot of time talking about different treatment options and helping patients decide between different course of action, like taking medication or undergoing surgery.

Invasive and Interventional Work

Issues that don’t have easy fixes often require more intensive care. Cardiologists are often involved in regulating heart functions through devices like pacemakers and arterial stints, and may also work with therapeutic medications that must be injected intravenously. These and other procedures are usually referred to as “invasive,” since they often require physicians to actually get inside a patient’s body. Most of these sorts of procedures come with a number of serious risks, which is why people seek out seasoned experts who have the training and the experience to get good results.

People who are “at risk” for various conditions like heart disease but don’t yet have them may also need a range of preventative work done to avoid deterioration of major arteries, for instance, or to stave off heart attack. A cardiologist familiar with the patient’s condition and history is usually able to make recommendations and design a treatment plan that can change and adapt as time goes by.

Types of Work Environment

The majority of cardiologists work in private practice, either on their own or as members of heart-focused teams, though this is by no means the only possible setting. Most hospitals have these people on staff to handle cases that come in without referrals, and experts can sometimes also find work in public clinics and government-run health institutes.

Not all cardiologists are engaged in the active practice of medicine, and many devote their careers to research. Physicians in these disciplines often spend their time studying different conditions and trying to figure out new ways of either treating problems or preventing them outright. This type of work tends to focus on writing, and experts often look to have their findings or speculations published in professional journals.

Still others commit themselves to teaching. Many doctors who work in hospital wards allow medical students and new physicians to shadow them in order to learn from their expertise and ask questions in real time. Teaching in medical schools or universities is also a viable career path, and seasoned experts who have a lot of respect in their field or region may also be called on to lead seminars or classes for practicing professionals.

Required Training

Becoming a cardiologist usually requires a great deal of training and education. Schooling tends to vary from place to place, but in most cases candidates start by getting an undergraduate degree, then progressing to medical school, which typically adds about four more years. Graduates usually go on to earn credentials in internal medicine, and from there specialize in cardiology through intensive internship and residency programs. All in all, the training often adds up to at least 10 years post-high school, though the total is usually closer to 14.

Things don’t usually end with formal education, though. Newly-minted cardiologists must typically pass a series of different exams in order to earn a license, and in most places that license must be renewed on a fairly regular basis. The science and technology of heart health changes almost constantly, and most governments and medical regulatory authorities want to be sure that all licensed experts have knowledge that is both comprehensive and up to date. Requiring regular re-certification and continuing education is one of the best ways to achieve this goal.

A cardiologist is expected to be an expert in treating congenital heart defects.
A cardiologist is expected to be an expert in treating congenital heart defects.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


How many years in college does it take to be a cardiologist?


What does the DO after a cardiologist's signature mean? I know MD etc., but I don't know what the D.O. means. It may mean some sort of specialty?


what degree would you have to take to be a cardiologist?


i think this should be good for me, considering i have asthma.


i was wondering, if cardiologists ever perform surgery in their life.


pursuing a career as a cardiologist takes between 8 and 10 years, depending on college and medical schooling. And you would not partake in a 8-5 type work environment. you would be on-call 70 percent of your "off" days.


i am interested in pursuing a career in cardiology and am wondering what type of schedule would a cardiologist have? would they work office hours or have a spontaneous work schedule like doctors in a hospital?


It has been suggested by a general practitioner that I see a cardiologist because my pulse/heart rate is too high (even though my blood pressure is stellar). I'm just wondering, what kind of things can I expect on the first visit? I'm really nervous, I haven't had the appointment. The general did an EKG and still recommended the cardiologist.


How many years of school would it take to become a Cardiologist? What would their work schedule be. hectic? Lastly, would could i do to prepare myself to become a successful Cardiology [now in high school].

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