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Cardiology is a medical subspecialty focused on the heart and blood vessels, which together form the cardiovascular system. This system's important job -- circulating oxygen-containing blood throughout the body -- requires coordinated electrical signals in the heart's muscular chambers, unblocked arteries to allow unobstructed blood flow, and properly working heart valves -- the little gates that open and close between the chambers -- to keep that blood flowing in the right direction.
Physicians specializing in the diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of cardiovascular diseases are called "cardiologists." After medical school these doctors begin with residency training in Internal Medicine followed by fellowship training in cardiology (there is an analogous subspecialty pathway in pediatrics to train pediatric cardiologists). Cardiologists should not be confused with physicians who specialize in surgical treatment of cardiovascular disease (usually called cardiac, cardiovascular, or cardiothoracic surgeons).
One of the first and most important organs the heart supplies with blood is itself -- through its coronary arteries. And one of the most common problems cardiologists address is the coronary artery disease that occurs when these blood vessels become blocked by deposits of fat and cholesterol (commonly called "atherosclerosis"). When a clot forms inside such an artery it can turn a partial blockage to complete or near-complete obstruction; this often produces characteristic chest pain to indicate that the heart's muscle isn't getting sufficient blood. If the blood supply is interrupted long enough, it causes a heart attack, which can involve some degree of heart muscle damage. If such damage is extensive and reduces the heart's pumping capability, it may be the cause of heart failure later in life.
Since blocked arteries can occur in other areas besides the heart, cardiologists are often intimately involved in the diagnosis and treatment of peripheral arterial diseases -- whether they affect circulation to the brain, legs, or kidneys -- or with what is probably the most frequently-occurring cardiovascular problem of all -- high blood pressure (a.k.a. "hypertension"). When the blood flows with increased pressure for years and years, it can eventually damage arteries throughout the body and weaken the heart, thus increasing the risk for heart attack, heart failure, stroke and kidney disease.
Cardiologists commonly diagnose and treat disorders of heart rhythm, such as when the heart beats too fast or two slow and/or irregularly. One of the most common issues in this category -- atrial fibrillation -- is important to address because, if untreated, it increases the stroke and heart failure risk. Diseases of the heart valves are also common; these include narrowing ("stenosis") of the mitral and/or aortic valves that may decrease the amount of blood available to circulate.
As with many other medical conditions, a primary care physician (internist, family practitioner, pediatrician) may make the diagnosis of a cardiovascular disorder and formulate an initial treatment plan; however, depending on the diagnosis, they will usually involve a cardiologist at some point, particularly if specialized testing is indicated which will often require a cardiologist to conduct and/or interpret (for example, stress tests, cardiac scans, echocardiograms, etc.). Cardiologists also play an important role in helping to reinforce the advice about risk factor modification such as diet, exercise, smoking cessation and other preventive medicine counseling.
Although Cardiology is itself a subspecialty under the larger umbrella of Internal Medicine, there are sub-subspecialists within the field, too, such as the interventional cardiologists that perform cardiac catheterizations with balloon angioplasty and stent insertion, or the electrophysiologists that are experts at diagnosing and treating heart rhythm disorders.
The specialty of cardiology fits seamlessly into the Hospital's comprehensive cardiovascular health services, which extend from prevention to rehabilitation. Our cardiologists work hand-in-hand with the surgeons and other clinicians who are part of The CardioVascular Center, in their mission to improve the heart health of each patient. In addition, our cardiologists are often asked to speak about heart health at wellness events and community programs.
For more information about cardiologists on the Medical Staff at The Chester County Hospital and Health System, call our Physician Referral Service at 610.738.2300 or visit the Find a Doctor section of our website.
Last Updated: 2/22/2013