Vice President for Technology and Regulatory Affairs, Advanced Medical Technology Association
The world is reckoning with systemic inequality in every space of our society — from real estate and education, to policing and the judicial system. Of course, healthcare is not exempt.
Women and minority patients experience very real and ever-present barriers to the medical diagnostics and treatments they need. When it comes to cardiovascular disease (CD), those barriers can be a matter of life and death. But the good news is they can be — and are being — torn down.
Right now, even while cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in women, women are still underrepresented in related medical device clinical trials. In other words, we have a significant problem — the instances of fatal cardiovascular disease in women and the tools we have to solve it (most notably research conducted through clinical trials) are not being adequately leveraged.
A greater risk
According to the National Study of Physician Awareness and Adherence to Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Guidelines, only 8 percent of primary care doctors, 13 percent of gynecologists, and 17 percent of cardiologists were aware heart disease is a greater cause of death in women than in men. Many of those clinicians failed to understand the differences between CD in men and women. As a result, women’s CD is going undiagnosed and patient-centric care is suffering.
While men with cardiovascular disease typically report shortness of breath, chest pain, and tingling and numbness in the extremities — symptoms you might recognize from movie and television portrayals of heart attacks — women with CD tend to report more subtle symptoms, like stomach, jaw, neck, and back pain.
Women often fail to understand these symptoms could signal CD and delay going to the doctor until it has progressed to a later stage with stronger, more visible symptoms — sometimes to a stage where treatment options are limited. Or, if they do go to the doctor immediately, their doctor may have trouble deciphering their symptoms as heart disease, and their condition may go undiagnosed.
As we know, these consequences can accumulate to a fatal point. Still, this state of affairs does not have to be permanent.
The first step to reversing this trend is education. Healthcare practitioners must understand CD’s unique manifestation in women and they must share that understanding with others. Then, they must act on it.
They can empower their patients to speak up when they suspect cardiovascular disease, even if their symptoms are mild, and they can help their patients take precautions against it. Perhaps more importantly, they can encourage their patients to consider participating in appropriate medical device clinical trials — for their own health and the health of women everywhere. The more women we have participate in CD medical device clinical trials, the better new medical innovations in the pipeline will serve them.
Already, AdvaMed members have taken up this charge and, in collaboration with a group of leading women cardiologists, launched a public awareness campaign to encourage recruitment, enrollment and retention of women in CD medical device trials.
It’s clear doctors and their colleagues in the healthcare system have their work cut out for them. But what about the rest of us reading this article? You can spread the word about cardiovascular disease in women to your friends, family, and acquaintances.
AdvaMed’s Take Her Health to Heart campaign website — dedicated to this issue — has a collection of great resources and information, including social media messages, brochures, and other materials you can use to help spread the word.
It’s a simple way to effect meaningful change, not just for today’s women but for generations of women to come. Join the effort and take women’s health to heart.