10/16/2007 05:53 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Gender Differences, Medical Disparities

Over the past six years there have been absolute changes in the country around the issue of women and heart disease. The great news is groups such as WomenHeart, the American Heart Association and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has made strides in improving awareness. About 57 percent of women know that heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the country and kills more women than the next five causes of death combined. Just to give you some perspective, the death rate for women with heart disease is 1:4. And, for comparisons sake, for breast cancer it's 1:30. Magnifying these statistics is a recent study that is another example of how women face great obstacles in getting the health care they deserve for their hearts.

Dr. Lesley Curtis of Duke University School of Medicine recently published a study of U.S Medicare patients in the Journal of the American Heart Association and revealed that women were far less likely to receive implantable defibrillators. In fact, in the study, men were 2-3 times more likely to receive these life-saving defibrillators than women. These medical devices save people's lives (they shock hearts back into proper rhythm to keep patients from sudden death). Something is wrong with this picture and unfortunately, the issue doesn't start or stop with defibrillators. Dr. Sharonne Hayes, Director of the Mayo Clinic Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, MN, told ABC Nightly News that "Women get less treatment, and they get it later, compared to men who have the same symptoms or conditions." Other investigators have found that women are 15-30 percent less likely to receive an angiogram at the time of a heart attack. Without receiving this diagnostic procedure proper diagnosis is more difficult and since an angiogram is the first step to getting more advanced treatments such as stents and bypass, women don't receive them as often either. Women have also been shown to be 12 percent less likely to receive clot-busting drugs during a heart attack. Clot-busting drugs save lives when there's a blockage in the heart. To add salt to the wound, women are 10-15 percent less likely to get proper medications to prevent a second heart attack as well. These statistics raise my blood pressure for sure and they are another example that there is a firewall, a lack of understanding, a mental block or an educational deficit on the part of physicians in understanding the cardiac care needs of women.

This is an emotional issue for all of us! Think about the devastating loss this is for the families these women leave behind and the toll it takes on our entire socioeconomic system. Just think of the thousands upon thousands of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts that could be saved if these disparities were addressed through educational programs at the hospitals, in CME classes, medical meetings and in medical schools across the country.

The time for change is now! I plead with the health care providers across the country to please wake up and get educated, get motivated, get passionate about the issues of women and heart disease... it will save lives, maybe your own or the life of someone you love.