John Vitarello is a cardiologist, medical researcher, and fellow of cardiovascular disease at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Born and raised in Frederick, Maryland, John went on to obtain a Master’s degree in Science and Nutrition from Columbia University and went on to complete his Medical Doctorate at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He graduated from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts and is currently a fellow of cardiovascular disease.
While at Columbia, John worked full-time as a research assistant at Comprehensive Weight Control Center (CWCC) Weill Cornell Medicine. There, John studied weight loss medicine where he became aware of the relationship between cardiovascular and metabolic disease. His interest in preventive cardiology led to his participation in various research studies where his findings were later published in peer-reviewed journals.
John’s latest research on US adults with hypertension was presented at the American College of Cardiology Conference in 2021 and was picked up by several leading news outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, and MedPage.
Where did the idea to become a cardiologist come from?
The part that I love about cardiology the most is the continuity of care. If you meet someone in their 50s they may be your patient for the next thirty years. You often meet patients in the hospital after a serious medical event such as a heart attack and then have the opportunity to follow their progress outside the hospital in the clinic. This is very rewarding.
What does your typical day look like? And how do you make it productive?
A typical day is going to depend on where I’m rotating in the hospital as a trainee, whether that’s in a heart catheterization lab, working with an electrophysiologist, or working with heart failure doctors.
As trainees, we often work weekends. In some circumstances such as in we’ll work from one morning through to the next morning. It is a marathon, not a sprint spending 24 hours at the hospital.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I have a vision of starting a cardiometabolic clinic. My focus is on addressing people’s risk factors for heart disease, with a special emphasis on weight management. Preventative Cardiology is not the most popular subspecialty. But it’s certainly one that deserves more attention. We can make a difference in someone’s life before they’ve suffered any serious consequences. Prevention is better than waiting for a problem to develop that causes them to lose their quality of life.
What is a current trend that excites you?
The trend that excites me are medications that help patients lose weight. There is a class of medications that are called glucagon-like peptide receptor agonists (GLP-1 ) that lower weight, decrease blood sugar, and reduce the risk of heart attacks.
A trial published in 2021, found that people who are on this medication lost 16% of their body weight when patients were also given counseling regarding a healthy diet, and exercise. When this class of medication was first approved, the only doctors prescribing the medication were endocrinologists. Now that we realize it also helps protect the heart, other types of doctors including cardiologists are starting to prescribe it. I think this is going to pave the way for how we treat cardio metabolic disease in the future.
What is a habit of yours that makes you more productive every day?
I have a habit of always asking questions. I think it’s important to always ask questions and all good doctors still ask questions no matter how long they have practiced medicine
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I would tell my younger self that sometimes ambition is our enemy. It is important to be young and ambitious. Billy Joel’s song, Vienna speaks to me about the need to slow down and be present in life.
What is something that you know is true that few people would agree with you on?
I believe that weight loss medications have an important role in preventing cardiovascular disease. Doctors were hesitant to prescribe weight loss medication after Fen Fen (phentermine, fenfluramine), the popular weight loss medication of the 90s caused heart problems and high blood pressure. Fortunately, the FDA requires that pharmaceutical companies monitor the effects of weight loss medications, even after they’re approved. It’s time we start treating obesity using the growing armamentarium of weight loss drugs. We owe it to patients to help them lose weight, and to protect parts of their health like cardiovascular disease.
What is one thing that you do over and over again, that you would recommend for everyone to do?
The thing that I do over and over again is the Mediterranean diet. Good, healthy food is money well spent. The Mediterranean diet is the most well-studied diet known to protect against cardiovascular disease.
What is one strategy that has helped you to grow as a doctor? And can you please explain how?
The best fellows are those who have mentors. Cardiology is a lot like an apprenticeship. The second strategy is to be curious and again, ask questions. At times we’re dissuaded from asking questions but it’s key to succeeding in this job.
What is one challenge you’ve encountered? And how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge of being a young doctor in training is that healthcare is very much a team sport. Many health care providers care for patients. There are doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and phlebotomists. The goal is to work together to give the best care to the patient. The best strategy here is to always listen to everyone’s point of view and assume the best in people. Everyone wants to do what’s right for the patient..
What is a business idea you’d be willing to give away to our readers?
Weight loss medications are already growing in popularity. There is a tremendous market for these medications. There are only a handful of companies that make the drugs that cause patients to lose weight, lower their blood sugar and protect them from heart disease
What is the best $100 You’ve recently spent? What did you spend it on? And why was that the best way to spend $100?
The best $100 spent is by going out to dinner with a loved one or friend. Or to have someone making a great, healthy dish.
What is one piece of software or web service that helps you to be productive? And how do you use it?
The web service that I use is Outlook calendar. I have a calendar I share with my wife. Listing things we want to accomplish makes us far more likely to get things done and leads us to be more productive in our lives.
What is one book you would recommend for our community to read? And why would you recommend it?
Reading is important to protect our minds. our population is getting older and the rate of dementia is climbing. There is renewed interest and how we can protect our memory. Reading plays a big part in protecting our memory. I encourage my patients to be lifelong readers. Whether it be fiction or whatever interests them.
What is your favorite quote?
“Treat the cause, not the symptom” by Randy Pausch. He authored a book called The Last Lecture.