Hospitals 04 September 2023

Checking in with women's heart health

Did you know cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally? This Women's Health Week we're highlighting how better awareness and access to treatment can save lives.

Almost every hour, an Australian woman dies of cardiovascular disease. Despite this, too many women remain unaware of their risk of heart disease.

Dr Esther Davis is a cardiologist and researcher at Monash Health’s Victorian Heart Hospital. She has a special interest in women’s heart health and runs the hospital’s Women’s Heart Health Clinic.

Dr Davis says women can experience the symptoms of heart disease in a different way to men. For example, they are more likely to experience symptoms other than chest pain.

Because of this they are less likely to recognise that symptoms are from the heart and seek medical attention.

Headshot of Dr Esther Davis, cardiologist and researcher for the Victorian Heart Hospital.

'Heart disease is one of the biggest killers of Australian women. Yet many people still believe heart disease and heart attacks are something that mainly happen to men.'

Dr Esther Davis, Cardiologist, Researcher and Lead of the Women's Heart Health Clinic, Victorian Heart Hospital

A dedicated heart hospital - and women's clinic

The Victorian Government is improving access and quality of cardiac health services for all Victorians, including women.

This includes building Australia’s first standalone heart hospital, the Victorian Heart Hospital.

The $557 million hospital is run by Monash Health. It brings world-class cardiac care, training and research under one roof. It is also home to a dedicated Women’s Heart Clinic, run by Dr Davis.

The clinic focuses on the management of cardiac conditions which are seen more commonly in women. It also promotes cardiac health with an emphasis on risk factors specific to women.

And it’s making a difference. Dr Davis says she’s had young women referred who got heart health checks after hearing about risks associated with pregnancy complications.

Dr Davis said in other cases women found out their non-chest pain symptoms were a sign of heart disease. When investigated further, they were diagnosed with coronary artery disease.

Do you know your risk factors?

Dr Davis advises women to get their heart checked regularly, as part of routine preventative care.

‘I would encourage all women over the age of 45, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women over the age of 30, to see their GP for a heart health check.’

She says this is important, even if you have no symptoms or believe you are low risk.

‘My experience is that many women underestimate their risk. Often women who are at high risk for heart disease believe their risk is low.’

Risks for cardiovascular disease include:

  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • diabetes
  • smoking or tobacco use
  • physical inactivity
  • obesity
  • unhealthy diet.

Extra risk factors for women include:

  • polycystic ovary syndrome
  • premature menopause
  • pregnancy complications
  • autoimmune disorders and their treatments
  • some cancer treatments
  • depression.

Bringing heart services closer to home

The Victorian Government is also investing in heart health equipment and services at public hospitals and health services in regional Victoria.

This means more people, including women, can access heart health checks and diagnostics in their community.

Colac Area Health received $221,500 through the Regional Health Infrastructure Fund for upgraded cardiac monitoring equipment including:

  • 17 cardiac monitors
  • four telemetry monitors
  • a central monitoring system.

Lisa Pryor, Executive Director of Nursing for Colac Area Health says patients presenting with chest pain and cardiac abnormalities is common.

‘The new cardiac monitors have made a huge improvement for staff and patients, enhancing the quality of care for our community.’

Lisa Pryor, Executive Director of Nursing, Colac Area Health

Lisa says the new cardiac monitors mean staff don’t have to transfer monitors between bays. Patients can also be observed remotely through the cardiac monitors by the Barwon Health emergency department.

This means patients can avoid unnecessary hospital transfers and be treated in their community.

‘We can care for patients here where appropriate,’ adds Lisa. ‘And if patients do need to be transferred, we can start appropriate treatment here first.’

Colac Hospital staff stand proudly with their new cardiac monitors.

Colac Area Health staff with the new cardiac monitors. From left to right: Dr Caitlin Kennedy, Registered Nurse Kate Watts, Associate Nurse Unit Manager David Phipps and Graduate Nurse Georgia McDonald.

Goulburn Valley Health’s Shepparton Hospital also received $310,000 in funding through the Medical Equipment Replacement Program to upgrade and replace their trans-esophageal echocardiogram probe.

Also known as a ‘TOE’ probe, this equipment allows clinicians to look at heart chambers and valves for signs of heart disease.

‘Being able to do the ‘TOE’ study on-site reduces the risk of a patient becoming more unwell,’ says Clinical Director of Cardiology at Shepparton Hospital, Dr Jennifer Coller.

The cardiology team at Goulburn Valley Health standing and smiling while holding a heart model.

The Goulburn Valley Health cardiology team outside Shepparton Hospital. From left to right: Rapid Access Atrial Fibrillation Nurse Catherine Maulion, Cardiac Nurse Coordinator Jemma Rigby, and Clinical Director of Cardiology, Dr Jennifer Coller.

Reaching all women

When it comes to women’s heart health, some groups face additional risks or barriers.

At Goulburn Valley Health’s Shepparton Hospital, Dr Coller and her team work closely with the hospital’s Aboriginal Liaison team. This helps reach women at higher risk. It also helps the team build a culturally safe environment.

Migrant and refugee women can also face more barriers to getting the right support for their heart health. These can include language barriers, or limited health literacy.

Dr Coller recently spoke to women from migrant and refugee backgrounds about women’s heart health through the Wise Well Women Program.

The program engages women from different cultural backgrounds in creating better health outcomes.

She hopes speaking to women who face more barriers will have a ripple effect. ‘Women can then return to their communities and spread the word about the importance of heart health’, adds Dr Coller.

Helping women live happier, healthier lives

Dr Coller believes we need to take gender into consideration more when treating women. This includes asking questions about:

  • previous issues during pregnancies like pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes
  • early menopause
  • perimenopausal symptoms.

Dr Coller says it’s important to consider life stage and how it impacts the heart. For example:

  • a young woman might have an iron deficiency – caused by heavy periods – that can impact on heart symptoms
  • a woman at family planning stage might need a change in treatment
  • a woman going through menopause might benefit from a chat about risks versus benefits of hormone replacement therapy.

Dr Coller believes taking this time upfront to understand a woman’s overall health and lifestyle provides short and long term benefits.

By doing so, healthcare professionals can build trust and rapport, which can support a woman’s engagement with treatment and potentially help improve a women’s quality of life.

Close up photo of Dr Coller, Clinical Director of Cardiology, at Goulburn Valley Health’s Shepparton Hospital. The doctor is pictured smiling at the camera with a lush garden in the background.

'A heart health review may not only prevent heart attacks and strokes, but potentially help improve a woman’s quality of life.’

‘It means they can feel better and get back to things they enjoy.’

Dr Jennifer Coller, Clinical Director of Cardiology, Goulburn Valley Health

Women's Health Week 2023 program

Women's Health Week is an initiative by Jean Hailes and runs 4-8 September.

This year's program features new resources and information on hormones, polycystic ovary syndrome, cervical screening self-collection, heart health, persistent pelvic pain and nutrition.

For more information about Women's Health Week and resources, visit the Jean Hailes website.

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