Gaining the expertise and experience you need to become a cardiac rehab specialist is not that difficult, say experts.

“When it comes down to it, helping people deal with depression, hostility and relationships is what we do every day,” says Kent Eichenauer, PsyD, who has consulted to hospitals in the Urbana, Ohio, area for 18 years. “It’s not a far reach to apply that knowledge to cardiac patients who simply have a more intense need for these services.”

For those interested in the niche, Eichenauer and others advise you to:

  • Gain experience early on. If you’re still in school and your program doesn’t offer a track in behavioral medicine or health/medical psychology, seek internships, practica and postdoc experiences in hospitals, particularly in cardiac-related units or programs, advises Melisa Chelf Sirbu, PhD. She gained such experience during her internship year at the Charleston Area Medical Center in West Virginia, where the cardiac rehab program was one of her favorite rotations. The move paid off: She is now the program’s staff psychologist.

  • Educate yourself. If you’re already in practice, attend workshops in cardiac health and risk factors and mind-body medicine, Eichenauer recommends. He also scours literature in the area and develops interventions based on the data.

  • Build relationships with hospitals. If your local hospital has a cardiac rehab program, ask if anyone is providing mental health services. If not, arrange a meeting with the cardiologist and staff to determine the program’s needs. That could be in assessment, staff consultation, interventions or all of the above, says Glenn Feltz, PsyD, another cardiac rehab specialist who works with Eichenauer. “Let them know you’re interested in helping them in those areas.”

  • Be entrepreneurial. Offer some services pro bono for a set period of time — a weekly stress-management group, for example, or provide free staff consultations, suggests Eichenauer. He’s also made cold calls to hospital directors, who were thrilled to hear from him.

“I actually think a lot of programs are looking for someone to call them,” he says.

In addition to helping people avoid the No. 1 killer of adults in America, you’ll be first on physician’s mind when they want to refer patients for more typical mental health treatment, he says.

—T. DeAngelis