It starts when you're a little short of breath while shoveling the driveway or mowing the lawn. Then, you can't seem to go up and down the stairs without taking a break. Eventually, simply getting the mail is too much. You know you need to go see a physician. The question is — which one?
Deciding between seeing a cardiologist or a primary care provider can be confusing. A cardiologist deals specifically with heart-related conditions, but a primary care provider can diagnose and treat many conditions — some of which involve the heart.
Whether you're concerned about your heart or something else in your body, it's critical you get the medical care you need to stay healthy.
When your health is on the line, it's important not to wait to see a physician. Your heart health and your overall well-being may depend on close monitoring, medical treatments, or both. Here's when to see a cardiologist vs. a primary care provider.
The Role of a Cardiologist — and When to See One
From neurology to dermatology, there are a variety of medical specialties that require physicians to go through extra training. This allows them to develop the skills and knowledge to treat a specific part of your body or illness. Cardiologists focus on your heart — specifically, preventing, finding, and treating diseases in your heart and blood vessels.
After medical school and general internal medicine training, cardiologists spend at least 3 more years in specialized training of the heart — for a total of 10 years or more of training.
There are many reasons you might see a cardiologist, starting with a referral from your primary care provider (PCP). If your PCP believes you might have a heart-related condition, they'll call on a cardiologist for assistance.
Other times, you may want to see a cardiologist from the start. You may consider visiting a cardiologist if you have:
- Severe symptoms that may be heart-related, such as shortness of breath, chest pains, or dizzy spells
- A family history of heart disease
- A lifestyle involving choices that increase your risk of heart disease, such as tobacco use or excessive alcohol use
- A health condition that increases your risk of heart disease, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, or obesity
- A heart murmur (unusual sounds between heartbeats) or changes in an electrocardiogram (ECG) (a test that measures the electrical activity of your heart)
- A history of heart problems, such as a previous heart attack, heart failure, or serious disturbances in your heart rhythm
If you know you have an increased risk of heart disease or you're experiencing symptoms that you believe are related to your heart, you may want to go directly to a cardiologist.
Remember, if you're experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, don't wait to get help — call 9-1-1 right away. Signs of a heart attack include:
- Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes and can feel like pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain
- Pain or discomfort in other areas of your upper body, including one or both of your arms or your jaw, neck, back, or stomach
- Shortness of breath — with or without chest discomfort
- Other signs, such as nausea or lightheadedness, alongside other symptoms
It may be difficult to know if you have a condition that warrants a trip to a cardiologist without the help of a medical professional. That's why regular visits to your primary care provider are critical. They test your heart health — along with many other important health factors — as a part of your annual check-up.
The Role of a Primary Care Provider — and When to See One
The key word in primary care provider is primary. PCPs are often your first point of contact with a medical professional. They are trained to help you prevent diseases and maintain your health, and diagnose and treat acute and chronic illnesses, such as asthma and diabetes. On top of that, PCPs are there to educate and counsel you on ways to stay healthy through lifestyle choices.
Primary care providers may not necessarily be the physicians who save your life on an operating table — but they can keep you from ending up there in the first place.
Because you see your PCP for regular check-ups, one of their primary responsibilities is to prevent and diagnose diseases, including heart disease. Some ways they may monitor your health include:
- Blood tests to check for conditions such as high cholesterol
- Tests to measure your blood pressure
- Screening tests for conditions like cancer, diabetes, and osteoporosis
- Mental health check-ins to monitor for conditions such as depression and anxiety
- Weight and height measurements
Just as a PCP can refer you to a cardiologist, they can refer you to other specialists, such as allergists and gastroenterologists. However, PCPs often treat and manage conditions just as effectively.
Many patients seek out care and treatment from their primary care provider for chronic illnesses, including:
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Chronic kidney disease
- Emotional problems, such as depression
Because a primary care provider is familiar with your health history, they take a comprehensive approach and consider all factors of your health. In some cases, you may also be more comfortable with your PCP due to regular appointments.
When in Doubt — Seek Help
When it comes to your heart health — and your health in general — the bottom line is to see a physician. If you're concerned specifically about your heart health, you may want to visit a cardiologist. If you'd like an overall health assessment, that's what primary care providers are there for.
Check with your insurance company before scheduling an appointment with a cardiologist. Depending on your policy, the insurance company may require you to see a PCP and get a referral from them in advance.
Keep in mind — no matter which physician you see, either can refer you to another specialist if necessary.
Whether you see a cardiologist, primary care provider, or another specialist, taking action to stay healthy is key. Your visit to a physician's office can keep you living a longer, healthier, worry-free life.
Do you still have questions about when to see a cardiologist vs. a primary care provider? Call 610-738-2300 to find a primary care provider or a cardiologist on the medical staff at Chester County Hospital.
You can also take our online heart risk assessment.
Related Information from Chester County Hospital: