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Heart & Vascular Health | Heart Failure | Living With Chronic Conditions | Our Doctors
Heart Docs 101

Heart Docs 101: Understanding the Specialties

Learn about the ‘super’ heart specialists

When you or a loved one is in need of heart care, it may feel overwhelming. You know you need to see a heart specialist, but which one? Having heart disease can lead you in a number of directions.

You want that expert knowledge

Many people go to a cardiologist because they want a specialist, but even in the world of cardiology there are “super-specialists” – doctors who are highly specialized in a specific area of cardiology.

“These ‘super-specialists,’” explains Benico Barzilai, MD, Section Head of Clinical Cardiology at Cleveland Clinic, “are involved with research, education and practice using the most up-to-date information, guidelines, diagnostic testing and modes of treatment. In many cases, the super specialists work together to solve complex patient problems.”

For example, he says, a patient may visit an electrophysiologist due to atrial fibrillation and find out that they also have heart valve disease. Or a patient with heart failure may find that they require a special pacemaker to make sure that both sides of the heart pump in synchrony. In these cases, a heart failure specialist or valve specialist may work with the electrophysiologist to create a plan of care that is best for the patient. The end result is a team approach to provide the best care available to the patient.

A closer look at super specialists

Electrophysiologists are the “electricians” of the heart and most often care for patients with heart rhythm—or pacing—problems such as arrhythmias like atrial fibrillation, tachycardia or bradycardia. They also care for heart blocks, or disruptions in the electrical pathway of the heart.

When we talk about heart disease, we also need to keep in mind the vascular system. It is the vascular physicians who specialize in the blood vessels, which circulate blood throughout the body. They often treat peripheral arterial disease (PAD) in the legs, coronary artery disease (CAD), fibromuscular dysplasia (FMD) (poor formation of arteries that leads to their narrowing and chance of stroke), and deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Heart failure physicians provide specialized care for patients with progressive heart failure. They ensure that patients are on the right medications and are making the correct lifestyle changes. And they can advise on the need for surgery or a device to improve heart function.

Interventional physicians use catheters to do less invasive procedures to treat the heart and arteries and close congenital heart problems.

Imaging physicians focus on structural problems of the heart. They look at the heart’s structures and function using MRI, Echo or CT technology and they handle problems of the heart valves (valve specialists), the septum, the heart chambers and the pericardium—the sac in which the heart sits.

Preventive cardiologists are the ones to see when you want to stay ahead of heart disease – or don’t want your heart disease to get worse. Patients who see preventive cardiologists include those who have heart risk factors, people who’ve had a heart attack and others who want more aggressive management of their heart health or risk factors.


Cardiovascular surgeons can perform all heart surgeries but will often have a special interest in certain malfunctions of the heart. A thoracic (or cardiothoracic surgeon) is a medical doctor who performs operations in the organs of the chest, including the heart, lungs and esophagus. Vascular surgeons specialize in diseases of the vascular system, or arteries and veins and they provide medical therapy, minimally-invasive catheter procedures and surgical reconstruction.

When having a surgery, finding a surgeon who has a lot of experience performing the procedure you need will help assure a better outcome.

Other heart super specialists include cardio-oncologists (for patients who have heart issues as a result of cancer treatments), adult congenital doctors and specialists in certain heart diseases such as Marfan syndrome.

“When looking for a heart doctor, you want to find the physician who specializes in your particular heart condition,” says Betsy Stovsky, MSN, RN, Manager of the Resource Center in Cleveland Clinic’s Heart & Vascular Institute.

At Cleveland Clinic nurses are available to help direct patients to the right specialty and doctors.

Tags: cardiologist, heart specialists, heart surgeon, heart surgery, preventive cardiology, super specialists
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  • georgeBMac

    I’ve been seeing the Preventive Cardiology folks at the Cleveland Clinic. They offer an outstanding program that incorporates cardiology, nutrition and exercise where they develop an individualized program based on the person’s needs and capabilities – and then continue with ongoing support.

    I don’t know of any other programs like it anywhere – and it’s one of the best moves I’ve ever made.

    I highly recommend it to all…

  • http://www.corindus.com/ Corindus Vascular Robotics

    The heart is a complex muscle, so it is no surprise that there are a range of different physicians who specialize in a specific area of the heart. Thank you for putting together this list. It is a great resource for anyone looking for a heart specialist.