Choosing a specialty is a pretty important moment in any medical student's life. Picking between two equally respected, equally high-paying specialties -- say, cardiology and radiology -- poses some pretty fundamental questions about what you want out of your medical career. Although each requires comparable levels of training and commitment, the two specialties are quite different in their day-to-day reality.
According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, heart disease killed almost 600,000 Americans in 2010, making it the leading cause of death in the country. Cardiologists help patients combat heart disease through early diagnosis, lifestyle and symptom management, and medications. As a cardiologist, you might specialize in interventional cardiology, inserting miniature instruments through a catheter in a patient's thigh and using them to repair heart valves and blocked or weakened blood vessels. You'll also collaborate with heart surgeons to meet the needs of patients with serious health problems.
Instead of working directly with patients, radiologists save lives by proxy. They use their expertise in imaging to help other doctors diagnose patients' condition, or guide surgeons in planning procedures. Radiologists spend most of their time reviewing X-ray images, CT scans, MRIs and ultrasound imagery. If you specialize in interventional radiology, you'll use your imaging skills to guide miniature instruments -- like the ones an interventional cardiologist uses -- through your patients' blood vessels to make repairs.
Factors to Compare
A lot of factors figure into your choice of specialty. For example, if you're an introvert, you might gravitate to radiology because of its minimal interaction with patients. If you're more achievement-oriented, you might favor cardiology because you are able to see the results of your efforts as your patients' health improves. If you're serious about having a life outside of medicine, radiology might have a slight advantage over cardiology. Radiologists' hours are more stable and predictable, and it's a specialty often chosen by residents who want to achieve a work-life balance.
Whichever option you choose, your first eight years of training will be divided between your undergraduate premedical degree and your medical training. At graduation, you'll have to decide between specialties. If you opt for radiology, you'll spend one year in a general internship and four more in a radiologic residency. If you decide on cardiology, you'll spend three years in an internal medicine residency and at least one more in a cardiologic fellowship. Either specialist can become board-certified to increase career opportunities.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: FastStats -- Heart Disease
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: Internal Medicine
- Radiology Info: Who Is a Radiologist?
- Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis: Diagnostic Radiology
- American Board of Radiology: Initial Certification
Fred Decker is a trained chef and certified food-safety trainer. Decker wrote for the Saint John, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, and has been published in Canada's Hospitality and Foodservice magazine. He's held positions selling computers, insurance and mutual funds, and was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.