You asked: What does it take to become a cardiologist?
Becoming a Cardiologist is more a task for the tortoise rather than the hare. After completing high school, there are many steps, tasks, tests, and training people must go through in order to call themselves Cardiologists. You might say that it’s not a job for the faint of heart.
After graduating high school, those seeking to ultimately go to medical school will take courses that encompass the basics of life science, among other things. A foundation of knowledge in biology, chemistry, physics, and math is essential to succeeding further down the line. Once these students complete their undergraduate schooling, they’ll take the Medical College Admission Test. Then they can apply to medical school, which is almost always an additional 4 years of schooling.
To give a sense of the magnitude of people vying for medical school spots, 52,777 students filled out 849,678 medical school applications in the US. Despite each person applying to an average of 16 medical schools, only about 50% of them were accepted to any of the places they applied to, according to the American Association for Medical Colleges.
Medical school is where students will begin to learn in depth about pathology, physiology, and pharmacology for various organ systems and disease states. Usually, 1.5-2 years are doing coursework in the classroom, small groups, and simulations, followed by an additional 2-2.5 years of clinical rotations where students will have the opportunity to “learn on the job” while being closely supervised. By the end of medical school, these newly minted doctors will have a basic fund of knowledge that prepares them to start differentiating into doctors of different training paths. Regardless of which specialty each might end up in, all of them have the same requirements to be exposed to each field and learn the basics in medical school. This general medical knowledge is tested in a 3-part extravaganza called the US Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE).
Having fun yet? The party is just getting started! In the last year of medical school, people will bring back the anxiety-provoking joys of applications and interviews as they apply to residency training programs. Students who would still like to go into clinical practice (yes, some abandon ship here for jobs in research, pharmaceutical industry, tech, etc) must decide into which field they’d like to go.
Those destined for Cardiology must first complete training in Internal Medicine. A total of 11,917 doctors applied to Internal Medicine residency training programs in 2018, competing for a total of 7,542 spots in the US, according to data collected by the organization that matches candidates to open spots called the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP). This 3 year residency training program allows new doctors to acquire knowledge and skills as Internists, or experts in adult Medicine first. Upon completion of residency, these doctors will be ready for independent practice and eligible for Board Certification in Internal Medicine, which involves another exam. While many stop at this point and become primary care doctors in the outpatient setting or hospitalists in the inpatient setting, some choose to go on and specialize in various areas. Cardiologists are graduates of these programs who are Internists choosing to have more training in the diagnosis and treatment of cardiovascular disease by applying – once again – to what is known as fellowship programs in Cardiology.
A total of 886 applicants matched into fellowship training programs throughout the US out of 1,261 applicants in 2018, according to the NRMP. In these 3+ years of specialized training, fellows – as they’re known – will become experts in the diagnosis and management of cardiovascular disease. They will learn how to perform and interpret various tests such as ECGs, stress tests, echocardiograms (cardiac ultrasound), and get a general knowledge of some of the invasive procedures used to treat conditions such as heart attacks or certain arrhythmias such as AFib. Once this fellowship training is complete, many will stop and become general Cardiologists, or non-invasive Cardiologists. As with Internal Medicine, graduating fellows will be eligible to take the Board certification exam in Cardiology at this point. For those who want further training in the specific aspects of cardiovascular disease, additional fellowship training in sub-specialties is often required. These areas might include Cardiac Imaging, Interventional Cardiology, Cardiac Electrophysiology, or Preventive Cardiology.
For the mathematicians following along, those years add up! On average, that’s four years of undergraduate school, four years of medical school, three years of Internal Medicine residency, and 3 (or more) years of Cardiology fellowship, coming out to a grand total of 14+ years. That’s longer than it took to get from Kindergarten through high school! Slow and steady wins the race.
After all, when it comes to taking care of your heart, you want someone who is truly passionate about what they do. You want someone that cares about you, from the bottom of their heart!
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