Cardiologists are doctors who specialise in heart disease or illnesses related to the heart. Qualifying can take up to ten years, but you'll be working in an incredibly rewarding, life-saving profession

As a cardiologist, you'll specialise in diagnosing, treating and preventing diseases that mainly affect the heart and blood vessels. Some of the conditions you'll encounter include arrhythmia, angina, high blood pressure, heart disease, heart failure, cardiac arrest and coronary heart disease.

You'll typically either treat ongoing, long-term illnesses, or respond to emergency, potentially life-threatening situations. You may also be involved in end-of-life palliative care due to heart disease.

Cardiologists treat adult patients only - paediatric cardiology is a separate specialty.

Types of cardiology

Although stroke medicine is the cardiology sub-specialty, few cardiologists choose to do it. Instead, most cardiologists choose to develop their role in areas of sub-speciality interest, such as:

  • adult congenital heart disease
  • cardiac imaging
  • electrical device therapy
  • electrophysiology
  • heart failure (which includes heart transplantation and support devices)
  • interventional cardiology.

New areas of sub-specialty interest include cardio-oncology and inherited cardiac conditions.

If you're more interested in the science behind cardiology, you could pursue academic opportunities in the field of research.

Responsibilities

As a cardiologist, you can expect to:

  • treat patients by reviewing and understanding their medical backgrounds and examining them to assess their current condition and health
  • look at and employ ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating a range of heart-related problems
  • carry out tests such as echocardiograms and interpret test results to measure how effectively the heart is working, which will help you to decide on the best method of treatment
  • perform specialist procedures, such as coronary angiography, to help treat cardiac diseases
  • prescribe medication to patients to help treat a range of cardiac illnesses
  • provide ongoing support and advice to patients under long-term care
  • work effectively in a multidisciplinary team, collaborating and liaising closely with colleagues
  • provide support and advice to colleagues working in other specialities
  • practise governance and audits within your department
  • attend clinical management meetings
  • complete administration, which can include anything from accurately recording patient interventions and referrals to overseeing budgetary information
  • teach and provide educational support and training for junior staff
  • carry out clinical research in your area of interest
  • be at the forefront of trialling breakthrough treatments and medication developed by pioneering research.

Salary

  • Junior hospital trainees can expect to earn £27,146 (Foundation Year 1), rising to £31,422 (Foundation Year 2). As a trainee doctor you'll receive a basic salary, plus salary enhancements for any hours which can be classed as unsocial.
  • Salaries for qualified doctors starting specialist training (early career cardiologist) begin at £37,191, rising to £47,132 as training progresses.
  • A speciality doctor (senior cardiologist) can expect to earn a basic salary of £39,060 to £72,840.
  • As a consultant cardiologist, your basic annual salary will range from £77,913 to £105,042, with the opportunity to earn more if you have additional managerial or educational responsibilities. You can also add to your basic salary by taking on work in private practice in addition to your NHS contracted hours.

Income data from NHS Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Cardiologists often work irregular hours as they're frequently on call. You need to be flexible as hours can be long and short-term contracts are common during core and speciality training.

Cardiologists typically spend between 40 and 50 hours per week with patients. On top of this, you'll need to complete the paperwork associated with your patients' treatment.

Part-time cardiology opportunities are quite common, but career breaks less so as staying up to date with the latest medical treatments and regulations in your area is essential to your practice. This depends, however, on each individual employer.

What to expect

  • Working as a cardiologist requires high levels of skill, knowledge and resilience. The work can be extremely pressurised and time-critical (for example, carrying out surgery or emergency situations), and you'll often work long hours in an extremely busy environment.
  • As a practitioner, you'll usually be based in a hospital. Cardiologists following an academic or research career are more likely to be based in a lab environment.
  • As women are currently underrepresented at consultant level, organisations such as the British Cardiovascular Society are actively looking to increase the numbers of women training in cardiology.
  • Cardiology is likely to take you to some emotional highs and lows. On the one hand, you can be working with patients in some very difficult medical situations, such as end-of-life care, but on the other, you can be helping people recover from potentially life-threatening illnesses and saving lives.

Qualifications

You need to be prepared to work hard and to train for between eight to ten years to qualify.

First, you'll need to complete a degree in medicine recognised by the General Medical Council (GMC). This usually takes five years to complete, although if you've already got a degree in a subject other than medicine (normally a 2:1 or above in a science-related subject), you can apply for a four-year accelerated medical graduate trainee programme (also known as the Graduate Entry Programme).

Following a degree in medicine, you'll go on to complete a two-year Foundation Programme, common to all medical graduates, where you'll work in hospitals as a junior doctor on a rotational basis in different departments. Try, if possible, to do rotations in areas relevant to cardiology such as endocrinology or oncology. On successful completion, you'll be awarded a Foundation Programme Certificate of Completion (FPCC).

At this stage you must complete general medical training, which consists of either a two-year core medical training (CMT) programme or a three-year acute care common stem (ACCS) programme. You must successfully pass the MRCP (UK) examination before going on to specialty training.

Having finished this training (or typically during the last year), you'll be able to apply to begin your speciality training to make the progression from trainee to consultant. This typically takes five years although many trainees also undertake research, which adds at least a further two years. At the end of this training you'll receive a Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT) and will be eligible for entry on to the GMC specialist register in cardiovascular medicine.

Skills

You'll need to be:

  • able to make quick decisions and remain calm in stressful situations
  • focused on attention to detail in mentally complex situations
  • comfortable working in a fast-paced and pressurised environment
  • a good problem solver with an analytical mind
  • an excellent communicator who is able to understand and empathise with patients and colleagues
  • confident in your skills, knowledge and ability
  • assertive and a good motivator and leader
  • an excellent team worker
  • persistent in the face of challenges
  • emotionally resilient when working in challenging situations.

Work experience

To show their commitment to the long qualifying period, everyone wishing to complete a medical degree is expected to have some work experience in a health-related field, either paid or voluntary, before applying.

This work experience could be based in your local hospital, doctor's surgery, nursing home, hospice or mental health trust and will help you to understand some of the physical and emotional demands of working in medicine.

You'll also need to have directly observed healthcare in action, which could be done through work shadowing (although you may need to be 18 to do this in some hospital departments).

Whilst at university you should join the university's medical society and attend conferences for medical students. Use clinical placements on your course to ask questions and get a feel for cardiology.

Employers

The largest employer of cardiologists is the NHS, although there are also opportunities in private clinics, universities and academic institutions, the armed forces and national governing bodies.

Academic cardiologists can also expect to find positions within the NHS, universities, academic institutions and the private sector (such as large medical health and pharmaceutical companies).

Look for job vacancies at:

Specialist recruitment agencies also handle vacancies for doctors.

Professional development

As a junior cardiologist, you'll have an educational supervisor and may find it helpful to work with them to create your own specific professional development plan. The onus is very much on you to progress your career around areas of particular interest that you develop through your training.

You'll be expected to continue learning and developing throughout your career. This is essential given the rate at which medical developments and scientific research lead to changes in all aspects of medicine, and is essential for remaining on the GMC register.

This learning can take many different forms, including undertaking a piece of relevant research or attending developmental activities such as conferences, exchange events, workshops or training courses. Further information on professional training and development is available from the British Cardiovascular Society.

Career prospects

You can apply for consultancy roles six months before you achieve your Certificate of Completion of Training (CCT) at the end of your specialty training. As a consultant, you'll be responsible for your own work and for supervising the work and training of doctors on your team.

Although cardiology is one of the largest medical specialties, it can be a competitive area to get a job in. This means that although cardiologists generally enjoy good job security, you're not always guaranteed a position. In some areas of sub-specialty interest, for example, there may be an oversupply of cardiologists.

You'll continue to grow and develop throughout you career, with many cardiologist consultants choosing to continue training and research in additional specialities. Opportunities at managerial level include clinical lead within a team, clinical director of a department and medical director within a trust.

Academic cardiologists have the opportunity to engage with pioneering research, which can have a significant impact in the field (this could be prevention, intervention, medical or surgical). You'll develop both your research and teaching skills, with the opportunity to blend academia and education within your portfolio.