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Your Healthcare Team: Doctors Who Diagnose and Treat Heart Failure

Heart failure (HF) is a syndrome with physiological signs and symptoms caused by the heart not functioning properly. HF can affect the length and quality of a person’s life. It is a chronic condition that relies on management and treatment in order to control the symptoms and progression of the disease. 1

People with heart failure typically have a multidisciplinary health care team that includes doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, dietitians, mental health professionals, and others.2-3 This is because other conditions that may be present can influence the cause and/or treatment of heart failure.3

Treatment for heart failure is generally directed towards treating the symptoms and preventing the progression of the condition in order to maintain quality of life and reduce mortality.3 A multi-disciplinary team of medical and health care experts can combine efforts to offer the best care for heart failure patients.2-4 You may encounter some of the professionals below while being treated for heart failure.

Cardiologist

A cardiologist is a physician who has special training in the treatment and prevention of diseases of the heart and blood vessels.2,5 Some cardiologists are Board Certified. They have completed a minimum of 10 years of clinical and educational training as well as passing a rigorous set of exams given by the American Board of Internal Medicine.5 A smaller group of cardiologists can go on to become FACC, a fellow of the American College of Cardiology. This group of doctors is elected by their peers to the American College of Cardiology based on excellence and achievements in cardiovascular medicine.5

Your internist will generally refer you to a cardiologist if they have concerns about your cardiac health. Cardiologists treat people with all kinds of heart conditions including heart failure, arrhythmias, and coronary artery disease.4-5 When you visit with a cardiologist, they will take a complete medical history and conduct a physical exam. They will likely check your blood pressure, height and weight, listen to your heart and lungs, and ask you about any symptoms you are experiencing. Additional tests such as an ECG, X-ray, or blood test are often used to provide more diagnostic information.5

Primary care provider

Internists or GPs, general practitioners, are typically in charge of your overall medical care. Often the one who makes the initial diagnosis of HF, they work with your cardiologist on the treatment protocol selected.3,6 Sometimes called gatekeepers, your primary care provider typically makes referrals to specialists based on your health care needs.6

Nurses

Nurses play an important role in the care of people with HF.3 There are multiple levels of training in nursing, just as for physicians. People with heart failure may encounter an RN (a registered nurse) or NP (nurse practitioner). Either of these may have specialized training in heart failure including in the education, care, and counseling of those with HF.3-4,6

Nurses can help you understand and follow your individualized plan including prescription medications, diet, and exercise. They can perform tests, monitor, and evaluate your symptoms, and make recommendations if things get worse.3,6

Physical and occupational therapy

Physical therapists and occupational therapists can help you get back on your feet if you have been deconditioned, hospitalized, or inactive for a period of time. They work with you on building back your strength and teaching you the proper, most energy-efficient ways to carry out the activities of your daily life.6 This may include how to get in and out of a chair, bed, or shower.

Dietitian

Dietitians provide advice and counseling on what you should eat if you have HF. They can create a tailored plan, taking into account what you like to eat, any food restrictions, and offer guidance on ways to improve compliance with nutrition recommendations and dietary limitations.3,6 Dietitians also educate you on the way to manage sodium and fluid intake, how to read an ingredient label, and understand the importance of maintaining healthy food choices and healthy body weight.1,3,6

Mental health professionals

Psychologists and social workers can help people with HF to cope with their feelings, limitations, and changes experienced in their daily life. They know how to identify symptoms of stress, anxiety, or depression in patients with heart failure. Most offer treatment to help individuals and their families cope with an HF diagnosis or the changes they may experience as the condition advances.6

Pharmacist

Pharmacists are the experts in medications.4 They evaluate drug interactions and the risk of developing adverse events when new drugs are prescribed. They can be helpful in providing information to physicians as they select an appropriate drug regimen taking into consideration all medications, vitamins, and supplements an individual may already be taking.3 Pharmacists can also provide instructions on how to safely take your medicines.6

The team as a whole

Since heart failure is associated with increasing age, more people will develop the condition as the population ages.5 The health care team can assist people with HF and their families to understand the diagnosis and treatment alternatives, to educate and counsel them about medication, recommended lifestyle changes, and provide resources for questions and follow-up.3

Open communication can help you understand new information and guide your decision-making process. A multidisciplinary health care team can help you manage your condition and maintain the best possible quality of life.2

Written by: Linda Minton | Last reviewed: October 2019
  1. Mosterd A, Hoes AW. Clinical epidemiology of heart failure. Heart. 2007;93:1137-1146.
  2. Your Heart Failure Healthcare Team. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/living-with-heart-failure-and-managing-advanced-hf/your-heart-failure-healthcare-team. Accessed 9/7/19.
  3. Communicating With Your Advanced Heart Failure Healthcare Team. American Heart Association. Available at: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-failure/living-with-heart-failure-and-managing-advanced-hf/communicating-with-your-advanced-heart-failure-healthcare-team. Accessed 9/8/19.
  4. What is a Cardiologist? American College of Cardiology. Available at: https://www.cardiosmart.org/Heart-Basics/What-is-a-Cardiologist. Accessed 9/8/19.
  5. Jaarsma T. Inter-professional team approach to patients with heart failure. Heart. 2005;91(6):832–838. doi:10.1136/hrt.2003.025296
  6. Your Health Care Team. American College of Cardiology. Available at: https://www.cardiosmart.org/Heart-Basics/Your-Health-Care-Team. Accessed 9/8/19.