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Heart Month Spotlight: How Shipley's New Program Helps Women

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Author name: Lee Health

New heart program for women graphic

Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus—or so the saying goes. And when it comes to heart health, it’s true.  

Which is why this February, coinciding with American Heart Month, Shipley Cardiothoracic Center is opening its Women’s Cardiac Surgery Center (WCSC).

Lee Health Physician Assistant Cathy Murtagh-Schaffer says although women and men share many heart disease risk factors, research continues to emerge demonstrating gender-based differences in those risk factors.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about 1 in every 5 female deaths.

The death rate from cardiovascular diseases has decreased among men but continues to increase in women.

“Historically, women with heart disease have been diagnosed and treated like men—with the same tests, same procedures, and same medications,” Murtagh-Schaffer notes. “But we know that women don’t always present the same way men do, they don’t react to some medications the way men do and surgically because they often present late in their disease, it can be a challenge.”

Indeed, the signs of a heart attack in women can be so subtle, they are often mistaken for less serious health challenges, such as acid reflux or the flu.

Too often the usual symptoms of someone having a heart attack are based on male-oriented heart research.

Another outcome of gender disparity in heart disease research is cardiovascular disease (CVD) continues to be misdiagnosed and undertreated in women. For example, physicians are more likely to assign a lower CVD risk to women compared with their risk-matched male counterparts, which underestimates the probability of heart disease in women, national data show.

“The Women’s Cardiac Surgery Center was designed to help women identify their heart-related special needs and risks,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “In collaboration with our cardiology colleagues, we can develop multidisciplinary preventive programs that can intervene in diabetes, kidney disease, hypothyroid, depression and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease early and decrease a woman’s risk of heart disease.”

She adds, perhaps most importantly, that the program can also diagnose women who are at high risk for CVD and, when appropriate, refer them for earlier surgical intervention. Because women often present late in the disease process, surgical outcomes are not always optimal according to research. 

“We want to be able to surgically intervene in a woman’s heart disease earlier rather than later as research shows this improves outcomes for women,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “WCSC aims to improve women’s access to heart disease prevention, treatment and care while educating healthcare providers about the biological gender differences in disease states between men and women.”

The Center’s overall goal, Murtagh-Schaffer adds, is to empower women to commit to their self-care, to adhere to prescribed treatments, and realize optimal outcomes that improve quality of life.

Pay attention to your symptoms

Heart attacks often feel much different depending on whether you’re a man or a woman. Even the risk factors look atypical. Women may suffer from nausea, dizziness, and fatigue – less common symptoms that are harder to recognize and easier to chalk up to a less serious condition.

Dr. Karla Quevedo says the most frequent atypical symptoms reported by women are:

  • Neck, jaw, or shoulder pain
  • Upper back or abdominal discomfort
  • Heartburn, reflux, and indigestion
  • Severe anxiety or confusion

Other heart attack symptoms such as reflux, back pain, or just general fatigue are often mistaken as conditions that arise from normal aging, according to the American Heart Association.

The big question: why?

Why do these symptoms occur more in women?

“It may be because women tend to have blockages in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart — a condition called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease,” Dr. Quevedo says.

These symptoms also indicate a lack of blood flow and oxygen to the heart, Dr. Quevedo added -- unlike men who suffer more from plaque buildup in the large arteries around the heart that normally causes more traditional symptoms such as chest pain.

Remember: Women can also suffer from these traditional symptoms:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness

Need a Cardiologist?

Lee Health provides comprehensive treatment options for a wide variety of conditions. Our Cardiology services page has all the information you need to get started: conditions, tests we perform, preventive care options, education, hospital services, new technology, links to pediatric services, and other essential information.

Want to find a Lee Health cardiologist in your area? Use our handy Find a Doctor portal.

Specialized Care and Clinics

The Heart Care Transition Clinic is a specialized medical office for cardiac patients recently discharged from the hospital to receive follow-up medical care. The Lee Health Heart and Vascular Institute Heart Care Transition team works with your cardiologist to ensure you get the follow-up care you need. It is important for patients with a diagnosis of heart failure, cardiomyopathy or A-fib to go to a follow-up medical appointment shortly after discharge from the hospital. Click the link above for more info and locations!

The Rapid Diuresis Clinic serves as a treatment option for those patients with heart failure or volume overload.

The Shipley Cardiothoracic Center at HealthPark Medical Center are national leaders in minimally invasive surgery. Beginning with valve surgery more than 10 years ago, Shipley has expanded to include robotic heart surgery, transcatheter valve repair and replacement and hybrid surgery for the treatment of atrial fibrillation. Shipley is the second-largest program in the state of Florida performing over 1,500 surgical cases annually. Nationally recognized as an IBM Watson Top 50 Cardiovascular Hospital, Shipley is the only program in Florida to receive this recognition for four consecutive years.

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