Getting the Most Out of Your Cardiologist

Find the right specialist

When you have your first appointment with a cardiologist, it’s natural to feel anxious about what to expect. It’s normal to worry about a trip to the hospital or exam room—so much so that there’s a name for the phenomenon of blood pressure raising in a doctor’s presence: white coat syndrome.

Of course, that anxiety isn’t conducive to cardiovascular care! Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to get the most from your visit to a cardiology consultant. With a bit of preparation, you’ll reap the benefits of a specialist with minimal stress.

Find the right specialist.

Before you head to your appointment, you have to choose the right doctor from the start. Can you switch to another health care provider at a later point? Of course! Still, you’ll save yourself time and effort by closely comparing cardiology consultants initially.

There are a few particular questions you should ask from the start. Do I want my cardiologist to have particular credentials or experience? Am I more comfortable with a particular gender? Would I prefer your doctor to be associated with a certain hospital? What consultants are covered by my insurance company? Can I ask friends and family for recommendations, or are patient reviews and testimonials enough to determine whether I'm getting the best possible care?

If you’re being referred to a cardiologist for a specific reason, your primary care physician may recommend particular cardiovascular specialists. In most instances, you can expect a similar degree of patient satisfaction from a recommended doctor as your GP offers themself! After all, you should trust your family doctor—and why wouldn’t you trust their judgment when it comes to a healthy heart?

Your choice of doctor is ultimately a personal choice, so it’s crucial that you make a decision you’re happy with. Cardiologists go through years of training so that they have the expertise to provide excellent care. But different doctors have different communication styles and other aspects that make one a better fit for you, as a patient, than another health care provider may be.

Come prepared.

Once you’ve selected a cardiologist and scheduled your first appointment, you should compile the information you need to make the most of this specialist‘s expertise. You should put together an assortment of personal details, any symptoms you’re experiencing in regard to your heart health, and the questions or concerns you might have.

For example, your doctor can use your personal medical history to ensure they’re making the appropriate care recommendations. If you’re taking a certain medication or have a particular condition, for instance, they may choose one prescription or procedure over another. You’ll also want to provide any family history you have access to. By considering these genetic qualities, your cardiologist can determine whether certain hereditary risk factors play a part in your preventive care.

You might also want to list any symptoms you’ve been experiencing, particularly those that relate to heart health. Are you dealing with an abnormal heart rate or arrhythmias such as tachycardia or bradycardia? Do you suffer from high blood pressure? Other common cardiological symptoms include chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue, and lightheadedness. Having a tangible list of these symptoms is especially useful if you’re anxious about your appointment—you‘ll be less likely to forget something you want to mention, nervous or not, if you have a list to consult.

Naturally, you should also take note of any questions or concerns you want to mention to your cardiologist. Are you worried about one symptom in particular or concerned about a risk that runs in your family? Take note of these factors in advance so you can be sure to address them during your upcoming appointment.

Be honest with your doctor.

Whether it’s your cardiology specialist or another health care provider, it’s crucial that you’re honest with medical professionals. Every doctor-patient relationship should be built upon trust, and this truth is a crucial component.

One such example is when it comes to your not-so-healthy habits. Your doctor is a professional; they aren’t going to judge you for smoking, drinking too much coffee, or having another vice. Of course, they’ll encourage you to opt for better, healthier practices. But they’ve heard it all and are here to help, not offer moral judgments.

It’s equally important that you tell your doctor the truth about whether you’re complying with treatment, whether that’s filling and taking your prescribed medicines or abiding by an exercise program as agreed upon. Are you struggling to afford a certain medication? Your doctor can help you find a treatment option that’s more budget-friendly and meets your health care needs.

Side effects and new symptoms are also essential subjects to discuss with your doctor. On the one hand, they’ll be able to treat any nausea, discomfort, or other side effects that come along with your treatment; on the other hand, they can report any issues to the appropriate parties to help advance the medical field and this treatment method.

Ask plenty of questions.

Whether you visit a cardiologist for the first time or the hundredth, you can’t be afraid to ask questions. They’re the experts, of course, with countless years of experience, but your health ultimately affects you more than anyone else, including your doctor. From your treatment options to the impact of your family history on your heart health, the questions you ask can transform your cardiovascular care.

In the moment, you and your cardiologist should discuss any test results, measurements, or other outcomes. “Is my blood pressure reading in the recommended range?” “How is my cholesterol level affecting my heart?” “What do the results of my stress test tell us about my health?” “How do these results impact me and my heart?"

The same is true of any risk factors that might affect your cardiovascular care. There are plenty of questions you might ask of your doctor. “How does my family history of heart disease impact my cardiac health right now?” “Are my symptoms impacted by my age, gender, or other risk factors?” Any lifestyle choices can follow the same pattern, such as, “Are my heart symptoms affected by my stress levels, eating habits, or exercise regimen?”

Again, you’ll have further questions to ask when it comes to symptoms or diagnoses as they occur. For instance: “Could my symptoms indicate a heart attack, heart failure, or another heart condition?” “What are my treatment options for the symptoms I’m experiencing?” “How should I proceed if these symptoms continue?” Any and all of these questions (and doctor's answers to them) can improve your treatment plan, but only if you ask them in the first place.

Try to relax!

Many people face stress and anxiety when they head to the doctor, much less a specialist. However, stress isn’t beneficial to your cardiovascular health and can result in skewed results before, throughout, and after your appointment. The last thing you want is to tire your heart muscle in the moment and find yourself with false concerns.

There are several ways you can aim to decrease your anxiety, including any pre-appointment jitters. For example, the time and day of the week you schedule your appointment for can impact your stress levels. Does taking time off work give you additional distress? Try to schedule your appointment for a day when you’re off already. Is it the fear of the unknown that stresses you out? Make a plan ahead of time to make the unknown known.

It can also help to talk to your doctor and their staff ahead of time, addressing whatever concerns are affecting you. Like your symptoms, this won’t be a new issue for them—they’ve dealt with a little bit of everything and will be ready to help you make the most of your appointment. There’s no need to feel embarrassed by acknowledging your fears!

If you’re dealing with severe feelings of anxiousness, you may benefit from seeing a therapist or other mental health professional to better address them. It may seem counterintuitive to see a doctor about your stress around seeing doctors but the end result may be worth the temporary discomfort. They can help you confront your fears and develop healthy coping strategies that enable you to see your medical team more regularly and with greater confidence—and with fewer instances of white coat syndrome and related issues.

Once you’ve chosen your preferred location and physician, contact your cardiologist of choice and make an appointment request. From your first appointment onward, then, you can figure out just what to expect, what information you’ll have to bring with you, what questions you should ask your doctor, and how you can relax before, during, and after your appointment.

Then, whether you’re heading to the treadmill for a stress test, studying the results of a recent ECG, or just discussing your risk factors and potential lifestyle changes, you’ll be prepared for your appointment. As always, be sure to be honest with your doctor and ask questions whenever something is unclear or causes concern. Doing so will allow you to build a healthy, trusting relationship with your cardiologist and make the most of their expertise.

Arash Bereliani, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.C. Beverly Hills Institute For Cardiology & Preventive Medicine

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