February 18, 2000

New center dedicated to women’s heart health

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Dr. Rose Robertson, here with patient Kristin Baumgart, is the medical director of Vanderbilt’s new Women’s Cardiovascular Center.

New center dedicated to women's heart health

As part of its plan to build the region's preeminent heart disease prevention and treatment program, Vanderbilt University Medical Center has identified an area that needs much attention — cardiovascular disease in women.

To focus that attention, Vanderbilt has developed the Women's Cardiovascular Center, located in the Vanderbilt Page-Campbell Heart Institute.

Heart attacks kill 250,000 women each year, nearly six times the number who die of breast cancer. This is news to many women because for years the emphasis has been on treating cardiovascular disease in males.

"If you ask women what they worry about the most, it's breast cancer," said Dr. Rose M. Robertson, professor of Medicine and president-elect of the American Heart Association. "But almost one of every two women will die of cardiovascular disease and stroke if we don't do something to protect them. There is an unrecognized epidemic of heart disease in women and in Tennessee, we live in the 'stroke belt' as well."

The challenge is to educate the populace about the statistics. A third of all women under 40 will develop heart disease during their lifetimes. And those who suffer heart attacks will not fare as well as their male counterparts.

"The message needs to be heard as clearly as it has been for breast cancer," Robertson said. "Many women are at risk, but there is a great deal that you can do to protect yourself."

The Vanderbilt cardiology program is singularly qualified to do just that.

"The cardiovascular faculty at Vanderbilt is fortunate to include a group of women physicians that cover the entire spectrum of cardiovascular disease," said Dr. Douglas E. Vaughan, C. Sidney Burwell Professor of Medicine and Chief of the Division of Cardiovascular Medicine.

"When we began looking at our portfolio and identified areas that we could target to differentiate us from other programs, the idea of a women's cardiovascular center emerged."

Recently, Vanderbilt received funding from Pfizer Pharmaceuticals to develop an initiative to help launch the new cardiovascular program for women as well as provide funding for community activities, free screenings (with a target of 3,000 women) and physician symposiums.

The aggressive push for educating women about their risk of cardiovascular disease comes from studying the statistics of heart-related diseases affecting women.

Cardiovascular diseases are the No. 1 killer of women as well as men, claiming the lives of more than a quarter million women each year. Based on recent data released by the American Heart Association, Tennessee has one of the highest incidences of heart attack and stroke in the United States.

"The way care has been disseminated is ineffective," Vaughan said. "Our program will emphasize disease prevention as well as treatment."

Women have underestimated their risks for cardiovascular diseases because they have felt protected by estrogen, according to this group of health care professionals. It is known that estrogen protects the cardiovascular system throughout the reproductive years. The same has been thought to be true beyond menopause through the use of hormone replacement therapy, but that issue has become more complex with the release of recent data.

"If you look at people under 65, there are more men than women with cardiovascular diseases because women tend to develop coronary disease a decade later," Robertson said. "Once women get beyond the menopausal stage, the coronary disease they began to develop in their youth begins to show up at a very rapid rate, even exceeding that in men. It is vital that we educate women to start prevention early, because we know that prevention can save lives.

"The point is that we can provide cardiovascular care to women with the newest and best information, treatments and equipment. The newest technology for assessing whether people have coronary disease will be available here."

Robertson will serve as medical director of the new center. Lisa Ivy, R.N., ACNP will be the nurse practitioner and a patient's first contact.

"We want to increase awareness among women," Ivy stresses. "It is imperative that a program designed for women be in place. Women do not realize that they are at such high risk.

"It is also a great educational tool for area providers so that we all learn the differences in the ways heart disease presents itself in males and females and it is remarkable how many women physicians Vanderbilt has attracted to deal with cardiovascular disease."

Other members of the newly formed Women's Cardiovascular Center include: Dr. Nancy J. Brown, assistant professor of Medicine; Dr. Karla G. Christian, assistant professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery; Dr. Stacy F. Davis, assistant professor of Medicine; Dr. Rebecca J. Dignan, assistant professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery; Dr. Esther Eisenberg, associate professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Dr. Katherine T. Murray, associate professor of Medicine.

Upcoming events related to women's cardiology include a Brown Bag Lunch at noon in the Learning Center in Medical Center North. Robertson will speak on "Women and Heart Disease: Differences Are Important." n

The new center will also operate in close collaboration with many departments within Vanderbilt to make women's services as seamless a possible. These departments include Obstetrics and Gynecology, General Medicine and other divisions in Medicine, Psychiatry, and the Breast Center.