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Women with Heart

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LOUISVILLE Approximately half of all medical school graduates are women. Fewer than 20 percent of cardiologists who see adult patients are women, according to a 2015 survey by the American College of Cardiology (ACC). The study’s lead author, Sandra Lewis, MD, a cardiologist at Northwest Cardiovascular Institute, says, “We need to understand the barriers to women entering cardiology and work toward breaking down those barriers.”

Breaking Down Barriers

Baptist Health Medical Group Louisville Cardiology is doing its part to break down those barriers for women cardiologists. With six females in a group of 16 cardiologists, the group is the only one in the state of Kentucky with that kind of representation of women cardiologists. Jennifer Lash, MD, is one of the cardiologists in the group, which also includes Bianca Ummat, MD; Rebecca McFarland, MD; Sreedevi Gondi, MD; Jamie Kemp, MD; and Mini Das, MD.

“To have so many females in one group is really unique,” says Lash, who has been with Louisville Cardiology for nine years. “I have friends who practice all over the country and none of those practices reflects women like our group does.”

Gondi, who joined the group five years ago, added that it’s no mystery why more women haven’t embraced cardiology in the past. “It’s not a very lifestyle-friendly field. There are long hours, intense days. In the last 20 years cardiac catheterization has become a big part of the field; women wouldn’t go into a field involving radiation when they’re often in prime child-bearing years,” she notes.

In addition, balancing family needs with professional obligations can be tough for women, who still tend to be the primary caretakers for their children. McFarland, with the group since 2008, is married with six children, but says that the practice is open, accommodating, and offers a feasible work-life balance. “My colleagues are very respectful of that. I do work very hard because it’s not fair to burden my partners, but it’s also been nice for my male partners who are really involved with their kids. It gives them the opportunity to do that as well.”

Ummat, the newest member, who joined in September 2018, says just knowing there were so many females in the group already was appealing. “It made me feel that I would be supported by other people with my same perspective in the group. The field has been male-dominated for so long, until people started to realize it was possible to have the job and have a life and family.” As more women have gotten involved, other younger women have become inspired by the role models of women who are thriving in this field. “Once you start seeing it, you think there is no reason you couldn’t do this also.”

Das, the female cardiologist with the longest tenure — more than 16 years — says she has seen positive change and added flexibility for women cardiologists in the field over the last decade. “Technical advances have helped to make it possible to balance home and careers for men and women. The barriers are coming down.”

Trends in the Specialty

As a specialty, where is cardiology headed? According to the female physicians at Baptist Health Medical Group Louisville Cardiology, they see a field that is increasingly sub-specialized, with cutting-edge imaging advances and increasing use of non-invasive surgical procedures.

“I see things getting increasingly sub-specialized,” says Lash, who is the only cardiologist in the group who reads cardiac MRIs. Gondi, an interventional cardiologist, agrees. “Everyone is finding their niche in cardiology. There are fewer and fewer general cardiologists and more people good at one particular thing.”

Imaging advances have led to a greater ability to see, assess, and prevent issues, which means fewer patients have to have open-heart surgeries. “Both Baptist Health and our group will see an explosion in cardiac care with many more subcutaneous approaches and much more cardiac imaging,” says Kemp.

Das says the field has become a “more finely-tuned art. It used to be just about opening up blockages. That was the mainstay in cardiology, but now it’s not just a surgery option. Many heart problems can be fixed by a catheter through the wrist or leg. This means hospital stays are shorter, and patients are healing much better and quicker,” she says. One of Das’s sub-specialties is cardio-oncology. “In young women with breast cancer, we are modifying medications based on tools like Echo, so we can prevent heart damage or failure before it happens,” she says.

Cardiology – Highly Technical but Still Heart-Warming

Despite the slowly increasing number of female cardiologists, it is still a relatively rare specialty for women. What do the women in the Baptist Health practice enjoy about the field?

For Ummat, she enjoys empowering her patients to regain control of their own health. “On a daily basis, I try to impart to my patients that they are active participants in their own health. There are so many things they can do that are within their reach—exercise, medications, diet. My main goal is to help people realize that.”

Lash was interested in the heart from a young age and shadowed cardiologists in college at Western Kentucky University. “Everyone said, ‘Don’t go for cardiology. You’ll never have a family life,’ but I said, ‘No, this is what I want to do. This is what gets me excited and makes me not mind so much getting up in the middle of the night.’”

McFarland serves as the cardiologist for the Hope Health Clinic in Oldham County, which provides free cardiac testing for the uninsured and underinsured in the area. “I enjoy helping serve that clinic. I have always had a heart for more indigent care. If you live in the US, I believe you should have access to care.”

Gondi, whose father is also a cardiologist, says she likes “the intensity of helping people who are really sick. You are not only involved with long term follow-up but also with procedures that help people in the short term. You have that satisfaction of helping someone see results right away.”

Kemp fell in love with cardiology when she saw patients with severe symptoms and was able to do something to help them. “It was exciting to see that, and on the converse, when you can’t help them that is important, too,” she says. “We need to also recognize we are often providers of end of life care, which is something a lot of people are scared to do.”

Patient relationships are most gratifying for Das. “I have been taking care of these people, sometimes for 12 or 13 years. Some patients have been told nothing can be done, but with adjusting meds and new tools, here they are ten years later. You are the mainstay of their lives, because when it’s your heart everybody pays attention. It’s a big privilege to be in that position, to be that person who has taken care of them for so many years. It’s heart-warming.”