So you’re having some concerns about your heart. Maybe something feels off — you’re having palpitations, or it seems like your heart is skipping beats. Or perhaps there is a history of heart disease in your family, so you want a professional to evaluate your personal risk factors.
Given the prevalence of heart disease across the country, it’s a valid concern to make sure your heart is in good working order and if there’s anything you should be doing to protect your heart health.
But where do you begin? It can be a difficult task to navigate the long list of doctors who might be right for you. We can help.
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Your primary care physician is a good place to start
Your primary care physician (PCP) is usually the doctor you see most often. These doctors treat a wide range of health conditions — from managing ongoing care to prescribing your regular medications to treating minor illnesses or injuries. They also handle your physicals and other regular checkups and screenings.
And a PCP is a good doctor to visit first if you have concerns about your heart.
“The idea is we are a team, and the primary care doctor is the quarterback,” says Liliana Gomez-Medley, MD, a family medicine physician at Memorial Primary Care.
Over the course of a typical physical or annual exam, primary care physicians consider matters of the heart. They’ll check blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and ask about other heart disease risk factors like smoking, exercise levels, diet and family history. If necessary, they may ask you to see someone else if there are specific concerns.
“When we have patients that have high risk for heart disease,” Dr. Gomez-Medley says, “we are going to refer this patient to see our cardiologists.”
When to see a cardiologist
Some patients choose to see a cardiologist on their primary doctor’s referral, but others may go straight to the heart experts and request a visit.
A quick note on the logistics of seeing a heart specialist: The amount of insurance coverage for cardiologist visits varies, and some plans may require you to get a referral from your primary care physician. It’s a good idea to check with your insurer or review your plan details before making an appointment without a referral.
Some of the most common reasons a patient sees a cardiologist include symptoms of chest pain, heart palpitations or feeling like the heart is beating too fast or skipping beats, according to Alian Aguila, MD, cardiologist, Memorial Cardiac and Vascular Institute.
There are many other reasons to see a cardiologist, too, including:
- Preeclampsia: Women who have had preeclampsia — a condition involving high blood pressure during pregnancy or after giving birth — have a higher risk of heart disease.
- Past smoking: If you have been or are currently a smoker, you are at a greater risk of developing heart disease.
- Diabetes: Adults diagnosed with diabetes have at least double the odds of developing heart disease as those who don’t have it. It can also increase your risk of having a stroke. But diabetes is considered a controllable risk factor, and a cardiologist may be able to help you mitigate the risk.
- Gum disease: The bacteria in gum disease can travel downward into the body and cause heart valve infections and heart vessel inflammation. So if you have gum disease, consider a cardiologist visit on top of maintaining your oral health.
- Cancer: If you have cancer or have survived it, experts recommend having heart checkups because some cancer treatments can strain the heart and cardiovascular system.
- Congenital heart disease as a child: If you had congenital heart disease surgery when you were young, it’s recommended that you have regular checkups with a cardiologist as an adult.
- New exercise routines: If you start a new, intense exercise routine after living inactively or being diagnosed with heart disease, kidney disease or diabetes, it’s a good idea to see a cardiologist before starting the new fitness program to make sure your heart is healthy enough for it.
After seeing a cardiologist, you may be referred to other specialties if you need further diagnostic testing, Aguila says.
When to see a specialist
While cardiologists can treat many heart issues, there are several other kinds of specialists who have expertise in specific conditions.
“Most of the patients that we take care of have already been evaluated by either a primary care doctor or a general cardiologist and someone has decided that they need sort of more specific or more specialized care,” says Demetrio Castillo, MD, electrophysiologist.
Electrophysiologists are just one of several types of heart specialists your cardiologist may recommend to treat different conditions. Here are the basics on a few types of specialists:
- Electrophysiologists: These doctors work on arrhythmias — heartbeats that are either too fast, too slow or irregular. They carry out heart rhythm tests, provide a range of treatments and implant life-saving devices like pacemakers and defibrillators.
- Interventional cardiologists: If you’re having chronic chest pain or shortness of breath, you may be referred to an interventional cardiologist. They use nonsurgical procedures to help treat a variety of conditions when it’s not feasible for a patient to undergo riskier open-heart surgery.
- Cardiac rehabilitation specialists: These doctors help people who have had heart issues in the past, such as a heart attack, coronary artery disease or heart surgery. They help create custom treatment plans that often include diet and exercise guidance.
- Cardiac imaging specialists: You might get a referral to see one of these doctors if it’s suspected that you have heart disease or if you have a pre-existing heart condition. Cardiac imaging specialists use sophisticated tests, such as echocardiograms, as part of diagnosing and treating a variety of conditions.
- Cardio-oncologists: These doctors are for heart patients with cancer — whether they’re beginning treatment or have survived it. These specialists aim to detect, monitor and treat heart-related side effects that can occur with certain cancer treatments.
To schedule a Memorial Primary Care appointment, call 954-276-5552 or to learn more visit MHS.net/PrimaryCare. Or to schedule an appointment with a cardiologist or specialist at Memorial Cardiac and Vascular Institute, call 855-400-6284 or to learn more visit MHS.net/Heart.