Cardiologist and Cardiac Surgeon – What is the Difference??

By Dr Michael MacDonald

Cardiac Surgeon

Cardiovascular disease is one of the top causes of death in much of the developed world. Both cardiologists and cardiac surgeons (also referred to as cardiothoracic surgeons) lead the fight against this deadly threat. While both professions are concerned with treatments of heart conditions, there are some critical differences between the two related fields. Both start their journeys by attending higher education programs that teach the building blocks of medicine, but that is where the similarities end. After a few years of medical education, their training diverges, the duties they perform differ, and their specialties can vary greatly.


Both professionals go through a similar start in academia. They attend higher education programs at the beginning of their academic career that focus on the same medical basics. Then, once they reach a certain level of knowledge, their paths diverge focus on surgery versus medicine. Then, the student specialized even further into different age groups, conditions, and diseases.

What They Treat

Both specialists work together to treat the same area of the body. However, there are vital differences in the things they treat and how they treat them. No matter the differences, they have to work together and stay at the forefront of medical knowledge to provide the most effective solutions.

Cardiologist Treatments

Cardiologists are often the first contact point after a primary care doctor when a patient has heart and cardiothoracic difficulties. Focusing on the heart and surrounding blood vessels, cardiologists can perform diagnostic tests such as echocardiograms to measure heart rhythms, ECGs, stress tests, and CT/MRI scans. They are well qualified to diagnose problems, conditions, and issues. For non-surgical matters, they can prescribe medications, actions, and treatment courses that save lives and reduce the suffering of their patients. They can often perform minimally invasive operations, such as placing stents in arteries, , unblocking arteries, correcting irregular heartbeats (ablation), implanting pacemakers, and more recently even put in heart vales! The relationship between a cardiologist and their patient often lasts many years, often a lifetime.

Specializations in cardiology include adult, pediatric, interventional, congenital, heart failure, electrophysiology and preventative cardiology.

In summary, cardiologists:
  • Are referred by a primary care physician
  • Focus specifically on the heart and blood vessels
  • Perform diagnostic tests
  • Prescribe courses of non-surgical treatment
  • Perform minimally invasive procedures
  • Make referrals to cardiac surgeons
  • Form long-term relationships with patients

Cardiac Surgeons Treatments

On the other side of the spectrum, the relationship between cardiac surgeons and their patients rarely lasts longer than a few months - enough time to confirm the cardiologist’s opinion, perform the procedure, and complete post-surgery care. The cardiologist refers a patient to a cardiac surgeon for complex surgical procedures such as coronary artery bypasses, congenital heart defects, aneurysms, heart valves that need repair, and, in the most extreme cases, full cardiac transplants or artificial hearts and pumps. A further difference between the two fields is that cardiac surgeons often also treat conditions of other parts of the upper thorax, as their alternative title ‘cardiothoracic surgeon’ implies. Depending on their specialty area, they can also treat conditions and diseases that affect the lungs, esophagus, and thymus.

Cardiothoracic surgeons can specialize in two main areas, cardiac surgery or thoracic surgery.

In summary, cardiac surgeons:
  • Are referred by cardiologists
  • Perform complex invasive surgeries on the heart and lungs
  • Can specialize in multiple areas and disorders of the upper thorax and in different age groups
  • Usually have short-term relationships with their patients


Both cardiologists and cardiac surgeons treat the same areas of the body, but the scope of their treatments vary. Cardiologists are specially trained to diagnose heart problems, perform minimally invasive procedures, and provide long-term treatment of their patients. Cardiac surgeons take the advice of cardiologists to provide treatment of complicated surgical procedures and rarely see their patients outside of surgical consultation, operation, and early aftercare. Together, they offer a comprehensive team to help improve and even save the lives of their patients.

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