Most patients see a cardiologist for the first time after a referral from an internist or general practitioner. It can be unsettling even to realize you need a heart specialist. The process of switching cardiologists after a bad experience, or looking for one on your own, can be even more intimidating.
Comparing notes with friends, family members, and coworkers is a good way to start. But even if you have a referral from a doctor or a friend, it's important to do your own research and find a cardiologist who's right for you. Here are some important factors to keep in mind.
Credentials: In addition to their standard medical credentials, cardiologists are also certified in various subspecialties (such as interventional or nuclear cardiology) that may be important to consider in light of your condition. Most hospitals provide searchable online staff directories that list credentials and specialties, and you can also check with your state's medical board.
These state databases generally list a doctor's medical school, training hospital, certifications, and specialties, as well as any malpractice settlements and other disciplinary history. Another credential to keep an eye out for is Fellow of the American College of Cardiology (FACC), usually listed after MD. This is an elected fellowship to the leading professional society for heart specialists in the United States, based on achievement, community contribution, and peer recommendations.
Location: The overall quality of and reputation for cardiac care of the hospital where they practice is often a good benchmark for cardiologists. Several hospital rating services, such as the one offered by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, provide statistics on cardiac care. While patients might be inclined to select doctors from the biggest and best-known hospitals, Kit Cassak, a regional director for Mended Hearts, a national cardiac support network, suggests that patients should consider a small practice or hospital if it seems like it might be a better fit. "It's a bit like choosing which college to attend," she says.
Experience: A cardiologist's level of experience is critical, especially when it comes to a specific technology or procedure. Don't hesitate to ask a doctor how many times he or she has performed a surgery that you may be a candidate for. A 2005 study of more than 1,500 doctors who implanted cardiac defibrillators in their patients over a three-year period found that the rate of complications within three months of the surgery was roughly 60% higher for doctors who had implanted fewer than 10 of the devices than for doctors who'd implanted more than 29.
Gender: Your own gender, that is. Women tend to have different symptoms of heart disease and heart attack than men, in part because their bodies respond differently to risk factors such as high blood pressure. Cassak recommends asking a cardiologist about the extent of the training he or she has had specifically related to women's healthand when it took place. Women may want to seek out a specialist who is up-to-date in this emerging field of research. Cardiologists who specialize in women are more common than ever, and many hospitalsfrom the Mayo Clinic to small regional health centersnow have special clinics devoted to women's heart health.
Communication: When it comes to something as vital (and fickle) as the heart, personal rapport is nearly as important as credentials. When you first meet a cardiologist, be attentive to his or her willingness to answer questions and, just as important, ability to deliver answers in easy-to-understand terms.
"Talk to them about their research interests and notice how they respond to you," suggests Vicki Reidel, a heart patient in Atlanta. "Are they dismissive? Do they seem to welcome your questions? Can you communicate with them?" Watch a video of Vicki telling other heart patients how they can learn from her experience. Be sure to also take note of the questions the cardiologist asks in return. Does he or she inquire at length about your family history and lifestyle, and not just your immediate symptoms? Does he or she seem to trust your own instincts and perceptions of your health?
"Communication, communication, communication," agrees Cassak. "If you're not getting that, it's time to move on."