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Ensuring a steady beat: The role of an electrophysiologist

Lankenau Medical Center January 23, 2021 Heart Health

The heart uses electrical pulses to pump blood throughout the body, but sometimes these pulses can become irregular. Electrophysiologists are cardiologists who specialize in treating these irregular beats and heart rhythm disorders. Colleen Hanley, MD, is a cardiac electrophysiologist at Lankenau Heart Institute, part of Main Line Health,and the 2020-2021 American Heart Association of Philadelphia Go Red For Women champion. Below, she talks about the role her specialty plays in maintaining good heart health.

What exactly is a cardiac electrophysiologist? 

Electrophysiologists specialize in treating different types of heart-rhythm disorders and irregular heartbeats, the most common being atrial fibrillation, or AFib. Some of these disorders can be controlled with medication, others require intervention. Electrophysiology is still a field that is constantly evolving. It’s a specialty that presents unique challenges that I really enjoy. I love the combination of practicing medicine and working with my hands to do procedures such as pacemaker implantation and cardiac ablations.

When should someone see an electrophysiologist? 

It’s fairly normal for your heart to occasionally skip a beat or beat abnormally due to things like stress, caffeine or lack of sleep. But even these periodic abnormalities can impact both physical and mental health, so it’s always best to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing them. Women especially should pay attention to their own bodies. Too often, women brush off symptoms and are too busy caring for others, so they neglect themselves. It’s important to find out the cause of symptoms and get a proper diagnosis so it can be treated before it leads to something more serious.

How much of a role does prevention play in heart disease? 

Genetics and family history are risk factors we can’t control, but we can control lifestyle choices. What we do every day can make a big difference. Diet, exercise, getting enough sleep and controlling stressors are all important. Even if we can’t get rid of the stressors, finding a way to manage them is key, whether it’s through talk therapy, meditation, exercise, or doing something you enjoy. Knowing your numbers—your blood pressure, cholesterol, appropriate weight—is also important. Telling someone to live a healthy lifestyle is nebulous, but creating concrete goals based on their numbers is tangible. And it’s never too late to make lifestyle changes that can impact your future.

Are people with atrial fibrillation at a higher risk of stroke? 

People with atrial fibrillation are at five times increased risk for stroke due to blood clots that can form in the heart. Fragments of these clots can break off, travel in the blood stream to the brain, and cause a blockage in blood flow which leads to a stroke. Once AFib is diagnosed, either by an EKG or through monitoring with a small chip that can be inserted under the skin, we discuss treatment options to prevent stoke related to AFib.

Is there a particular patient who sticks out in your mind? 

The most memorable for me are the patients who are really suffering with a heart rhythm disorder and are at a loss for what to do. They’ve never been properly diagnosed and are often living with symptoms for years, sometimes even decades. Knowing I can offer a diagnosis and treatment and help them live the rest of their lives without symptoms or worry… those are the most impactful stories to me.

Main Line Health serves patients at hospitals and health centers throughout the western suburbs of Philadelphia. To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.