American Heart Month (2021): Expert Interview & Advocacy Guide
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“Our role as cardiovascular technologists has become even more significant due to the increase in and impact of heart disease.”
Karen Langan, BS, RCIS, Clinical Coordinator of the Cardiovascular Technology (CVT) Program at Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences
For years, cardiovascular disease has been the number one cause of death in the US, as well as the leading driver of healthcare costs. While medical science has made significant advancements in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease, rising obesity rates and unhealthy lifestyle choices have caused the problem to worsen.
A major factor in America’s poor cardiovascular health is a lack of public awareness: 83 percent of Americans believe that heart attacks can be prevented, but they aren’t motivated to do anything; 72 percent of Americans don’t believe they’re at risk for heart disease; and 58 percent of Americans put no effort into improving their heart health.
February is American Heart Month, and February 14-20 marks Cardiovascular Professionals Week. This is a time to recognize the importance of heart health, as well as the work of the cardiovascular technologists who strive to better understand and improve it.
Read on to get a look at who cardiovascular technologists are, the top issues they face, and how to become one.
Meet the Expert: Karen Langan, BS, RCIS
Karen Langan is the Clinical Coordinator of the Cardiovascular Technology (CVT) Program at Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences. Over an 18 year career in endovascular care, she’s provided care at several different cath labs, and brings experience in carotid interventions, high-risk cardiac repair, CTOs, congenital defect repairs, TAVRs, and electrophysiology procedures. Langan earned her diploma in invasive cardiovascular technology from Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences.
Who Are Cardiovascular Technologists?
Cardiovascular technologists are health professionals who work alongside cardiologists to monitor, diagnose, and treat cardiovascular conditions. They’re an integral part of the care team, performing complex procedures and operating advanced pieces of medical technology.
These professionals are well-versed in the nuances of cardiovascular health, but many choose to pursue further specializations, such as electrophysiology, echocardiography, invasive cardiovascular technology, or non-invasive cardiovascular technology.
Invasive specialists often work in cardiac catheterization laboratories, also known as cath labs. Here, their responsibilities center around invasive procedures—those which pierce the skin and require a sterile environment. They may also assist in treating emergency patients who have recently experienced cardiac arrest.
Non-invasive specialists focus on a particular form of non-invasive diagnostic testing. This can include non-invasive electrophysiology and echocardiography. Cardiovascular technologists working in this capacity will often interact with patients one-on-one.
Electrophysiology specialists focus on heart rhythm conditions, such as those that require a pacemaker. They can work in a cath lab, but often they work in a laboratory specifically dedicated to electrophysiology procedures. Electrophysiology generally overlaps with the invasive specialty.
Echocardiography specialists, also known as cardiovascular sonographers, use echocardiograms to diagnose and evaluate heart disease. A form of ultrasound technology, echocardiograms allow specialists to monitor the function of a patient’s heart. Electrocardiography often overlaps with the non-invasive specialty, and echocardiography technologists will often work one-on-one with patients.
How Do You Become a Cardiovascular Technologist?
Traditionally, cardiovascular technologists have needed an associate’s degree in order to begin their career, but four-year degrees that incorporate more foundational knowledge in the life sciences are growing in popularity. Academic programs in cardiovascular technology will often cover areas such as cardiac anatomy and physiology; cardiovascular hemodynamics; cardiac arrhythmias and treatments; cardiac pharmacology; and radiology. These programs also include clinical rotations.
Cardiovascular techs may also pursue professional certification upon graduation. While not a requirement for most positions, it’s looked upon favorably by employers and peers. Certifications are available through Cardiac Credentialing International (CCI). Earning these certifications involves a competency-based exam and continuing education; the latter of which is particularly important in the evolving science of cardiovascular care.
Interview with an Expert: The Evolving Role of Cardiovascular Technologists
“Our role as cardiovascular technologists has become even more significant due to the increase in and impact of heart disease,” says Karen Langan, BS, RCIS, Clinical Coordinator of the Cardiovascular Technology (CVT) Program at Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences.
“Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States, and everything from Covid-19, to increased stress, to high blood pressure, to a lack of preventative care has been shown to impact cardiovascular health.”
Heart disease may be on the rise, but the technology and treatment options available are evolving in tandem. Patients have far more options these days in terms of the procedures available to them, and cardiovascular technologists are expertly trained to assist in performing them. Cardiovascular technologists not only assist doctors with cardiac interventions, but they also assist in performing peripheral procedures, carotid stenting, heart valve replacements, and even the repair of congenital defects in the heart.
“The field is constantly changing to create better health outcomes for patients,” Langan says. “Ten years ago, many procedures on the heart were only performed via open-heart surgery, but now can be done through minimally invasive procedures in a cath lab, where CVTs are needed to assist.”
Cardiovascular technologists are needed now more than ever. But, as with all health professions, the physical and mental strain that goes with it can lead to burnout. The changes that Covid-19 has created in the healthcare system has also led to a decreased number of elective cardiac procedures; at the same time, cardiovascular professionals are still relied upon 24/7 for emergencies. The resultant workload for cardiovascular technologists has been both taxing and inconsistent.
“The fight against Covid-19 has revealed the complex and extensive ecosystem of community-level public health and healthcare,” Langan says. “In the past, many patients have not understood the depth of their care team—it goes well past doctors and nurses. Many are now getting a glimpse of how many professionals it takes to care for patients. This is particularly true for those health sciences professionals working in the frontlines, including cardiovascular technologists. We hope that moving forward patients and the public will be educated on the different jobs that go into someone’s care.”
The role of the cardiovascular technologist is continuing to expand. Today’s cardiovascular technologists are seeking out cross-training and learning about emerging technologies and the intricacies of the healthcare ecosystem. They’re also engaged in advocacy, particularly around raising awareness about heart disease. These widened responsibilities can make the work of a cardiovascular technologist challenging, but for Langan, the rewards are intrinsic.
“The best thing about being a cardiovascular technologist is the instant gratification that you get from helping someone in need by relieving their pain instantly by opening a blocked artery,” Langan says. “If someone is having a heart attack, we can usually heal them quickly and then be able to put them on a path to better health. It is also a very rewarding job because the staff members work so closely together in high-stress scenarios that a true ‘family bond’ is created and that strengthens the capabilities of an urgent care team.”
Resources for Cardiovascular Technologists
A crucial step for every new and aspiring cardiovascular technologist is to join the wider community of cardiovascular professionals. Below you’ll find resources around jobs, continuing education opportunities, scientific research, and advocacy issues in cardiovascular care.
- Association of Cardiovascular Professionals (ACVP): The only professional organization dedicated to the non-physician workforce in cardiovascular care, ACVP has over 3,000 members and 10,000 networked professionals involved in all levels of cardiovascular service and specialty.
- American College of Cardiology (ACC): While it was founded by 13 cardiologists, ACC now aspires to be the indispensable home of all cardiovascular professionals, providing them with both clinical and non-clinical solutions for every stage of their careers.
- American Heart Association (AHA): No non-profit organization has done more for heart health than AHA. With more than 40,000 volunteers and supporters, and over $4.5 billion invested in heart research, AHA is leading the fight against heart disease and stroke and striving to save and improve lives.
- Cardiovascular Credentialing International (CCI): Since 1948, CCI has offered the nation’s most recognized certifications for cardiovascular professionals, backed up with high quality, competency-based exams.