Bias and Biology - BHF panel on gender inequalities in heart disease

27 June 2019        

Category: About BHF

On Tuesday 25th June, we outlined our campaign to banish unnecessary gender bias in the awareness, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease

Bias and Biology event

The Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson and former Vogue Editor-in-Chief, Alexandra Shulman joined a BHF panel event to discuss the deadly gender inequalities in many aspects of heart disease. The event was held at the prestigious Mortimer House in London, was hosted in front of an audience of journalists, BHF supporters and high profile guests with an interest in supporting our campaign.

The pair were joined by Editor-In-Chief of Women’s Health, Claire Sanderson, author and journalist, Lucy Mangan and leading BHF researchers, Professor Chris Gale and Dr Vijay Kanadian. We brought together experts from fields including the media and cardiology, to raise awareness of the dangers of heart disease for women across the country.

What our research has found

Latest figures show that twice as many women die of coronary heart disease each year than breast cancer in the UK (1). Yet, awareness among women is low, which often means they delay seeking urgent medical help if they experience the symptoms of a heart attack (2).

Our research has also shown unnecessary gender inequalities in diagnosis, treatment and care. A recent study led by Professor Chris Gale shows that women who suffer a heart attack are 50% more likely than men to be given a wrong initial diagnosis (3). Further research has estimated that over ten years, more than 8,000 women in England and Wales could have been saved if they received equal heart attack care to men (4).

We will be launching a campaign in September to raise awareness of heart disease among women and address some of the deadly gender inequalities this research has revealed.

What the panel said

Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, said: “It was fantastic to share the stage with such eminent women and expert scientists. The misperception that heart disease is just a man’s problem has persisted for too long and it means that women are less likely to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack or minimise their importance.”

“For generations, women have come together to smash through glass ceilings in order to overcome unjust inequalities in society. I hope events like today ignite a movement in which women of all ages come together to talk about their heart health and how some of the inequalities in care can be addressed. As a mother of daughters, the figures are startling, but I’m confident we can be the generation to change things for those who suffer heart disease in the years to come.”

Alexandra Shulman CBE, discussed the media’s role in the stereotyping of heart attacks and how it can be a driving force in breaking down these misconceptions. She said: “We are too ignorant about the impact of heart disease for women and that failure is costing lives. This campaign needs women from every corner of society to shine a light on the issues through the media and other public forums. The gap in awareness, treatment and care is stark – and it’s vital to have the same high profile attention paid to it as breast cancer and mental health have in recent years.”

Professor Chris Gale has led multiple studies that have shown the gaps in diagnosis and care between women and men which he shared at the event. He said: “We need to work harder to shift the perception that heart attacks only affect a certain type of person. Typically, when we think of a heart attack patient, we see a middle-aged man who is overweight, has diabetes and smokes. This is not always the case; heart attacks affect the wider spectrum of the population – including women.

“This misconception is dangerous - research has shown that women are dying due to unequal heart attack care. In isolation the differences in care that women receive may appear small, but even in a high performing health system like the UK, small deficits in care across a population add up to reveal a much larger problem and a significant loss of life.

“We also show that not all differences are down to bias – some are down to biology. Only with more research can we hope to better understand how to target biology and best treat heart attacks in women.”

Lucy Mangan, familiar with the notion of women’s invisibility within healthcare, said: “As we’ve already seen in Caroline Criado Perez’s bestselling book ‘Invisible Women’, it is painfully clear that women’s health is under prioritised. Our health is often not understood as well as men’s – especially when it comes to our hearts.

“While many of this evening’s revelations are disheartening, I believe they can kick-start a powerful movement that will engage women of every generation. There are tangible actions we can all take to tackle this bias in heart health. Doing so could save the lives of thousands of women who suffer from heart disease.”

Claire Sanderson, Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Health, who hosted last night’s panel said: “What an inspiring event. It was amazing to see the amount of passion in the room as each panellist spoke. Tonight, we’ve learnt that action must be taken to make women aware of the dangers of heart disease and to fight back against the dangerous bias that’s killing thousands of women in the UK.”

Our Women and Heart Disease campaign will launch in September, with the aim of inspiring a movement that narrows the gender inequality in awareness, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation for heart disease.

 

 

References:

(1) 2017 UK figures 23,500 Coronary heart disease vs 11.4K breast cancer. Page 8, BHF CVD Statistics Compendium https://www.bhf.org.uk/get-involved/fundraising/wear-it-beat-it/-/media/files/research/heart-statistics/bhf-cvd-statistics-compendium-2017.pdf

(2) PAGIDIPATI, N. J. & PETERSON, E. D. 2016. Acute coronary syndromes in women and men. Nat Rev Cardiol, 13, 471-80. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27256211

(3) Impact of initial hospital diagnosis on mortality for acute myocardial infarction: A national cohort study https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2048872616661693

(4) Sex differences in quality indicator attainment for myocardial infarction: a nationwide cohort study https://heart.bmj.com/content/105/7/516.abstract