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News, Women's Health | 3 months ago

Atrium Health’s Female Cardiologists Lead the Way in Improving Women’s Heart Health

While women represent approximately 50% of the population, only 10% to 15% of cardiologists are female. Thanks to Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute’s robust recruiting efforts, 40% of physicians hired at Sanger in the past three years are women. Meet three female cardiologists paving the way to better women’s heart care.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women in the United States, and females have unique risk factors that impact their heart health. To combat this statistic and demonstrate its commitment to women’s heart health, Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute has expanded its women’s heart health program, including an annual conference, and has a robust recruiting program for female cardiologists.

Empowering and educating patients: The “Heart to Heart” Women’s Conference

Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute recently hosted its second annual “Heart to Heart” Women’s Conference in Charlotte. The event featured empowering heart health information, emotional patient stories, and engaging educational sessions designed to support patients of all ages. 

“It’s great to get the word out, especially as an African American woman,” says Yvette Baker, a Sanger patient and heart transplant recipient. “There’s a huge disparity in healthcare in my community and I love to be part of this so I can share. I decided when I received my heart [transplant] that I wanted to be a vessel to share the information and get it out to our community.” 

“Coming together is important because you learn other people may be going through the same thing as you,” says Dr. Soo Hyun "Esther" Kim, director of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute. “I am very proud that Sanger has been so visionary in terms of recognizing the unique needs of women who have heart disease.” 

Atrium Health’s recruitment of female cardiologists

Atrium Heath’s recruitment efforts have led to higher numbers of women on staff, particularly in leadership, patient care and academic roles. In fact, 40% of physicians hired at Sanger in the past three years are women. 

The latest additions to the Sanger team include Kim and Dr. Holly Gonzales, an advanced imaging specialist. They join veteran experts like Dr. Sherry Saxonhouse, one of the only female electrophysiologists in the country, in building a one-of-a-kind team that has a profound impact on local patients and students.

“We want Sanger to be the ‘best place to care’ in the region,” says Carrie Miller, vice president of clinical operations at Sanger. “And many of the best cardiologists today are women.”

 Meet Dr. Soo Hyun “Esther” Kim Dr. Soo Hyun “Esther” Kim

As director of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at Sanger, Kim devotes exceptional resources and expertise to risks and conditions often overlooked by the broader cardiology community. One of her particular areas of interest is spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD), a tear in the heart vessel that can lead to a heart attack. A staggering 90% of SCAD patients are women and SCAD accounts for approximately 40% of heart attacks in women under age 50. 

“SCAD is one example of how heart disease in women is different from heart disease in men,” says Kim. “The goal of the Center for Women’s Cardiovascular Health at Sanger is to specifically address the unique risk factors, presentation and treatment of heart disease in women. Programs such as the SCAD clinic within the Center allow us to provide expert care, participate in nationally recognized research and engage in community-facing educational activities.”

Under Kim’s leadership, Sanger hosted a medical conference in 2023 on rare heart conditions that affect women. Experts from around the world attended the event to discuss the clinical care of patients with SCAD and new research developments, with the goal of providing hope and improved care to patients.

Kim has also organized a multidisciplinary team to care for pregnant and postpartum women with cardiovascular disease or heart disease risk factors.

“We have experts in adult cardiology, congenital cardiology, obstetrics and maternal and fetal medicine working together to ensure women get the cardiovascular care and prevention they need across their adult lifespan,” she adds.

Meet Dr. Holly GonzalesDr. Holly Gonzales

Dr. Gonzales is part of the renowned Valve Clinic at Sanger, where she specializes in advanced cardiovascular imaging and treats structural heart defects. One area of interest is treating tricuspid valve regurgitation, which affects more women than men.

“Today, we have much better ways of treating tricuspid regurgitation than we used to,” she says.

Recently, a patient was referred to Gonzales with tricuspid regurgitation and a possible mitral valve leak. Advanced imaging played a major role in identifying the issue and treating the patient appropriately and swiftly. A transesophageal echocardiogram showed that the mitral valve wasn’t leaking, but the tricuspid leak was severe and a rare case of tricuspid valve prolapse. Gonzales assisted the interventional cardiology team in correcting the leak with a clipping device during a repair procedure.

“Before advanced imaging, the leak could have easily been missed,” she says.

In addition to her clinical work, Gonzales is passionate about mentoring and training medical students, residents and fellows. As a member of the American College of Cardiology, she participates in a program pairing female medical residents with cardiologists. Gonzales and Kim also design training and curricula for medical students, residents and fellows at Sanger.

“It’s both a challenge and an honor to prepare the next generation for a future in cardiology,” says Gonzales.

Meet Dr. Sherry Saxonhouse 

Dr. Saxonhouse is the director of Sanger and Atrium Health’s Atrial Fibrillation Center of Excellence. Atrial fibrillation is one of the most common heart arrhythmias, leading to an irregular, rapid heartbeat and poor blood flow. She leads the work of improving atrial fibrillation patient outcomes by providing a better patient experience and delivering state-of-the-art care.

Saxonhouse has participated in national committees and guideline development for atrial fibrillation anticoagulation (medicine that helps prevent blood clots) and bridging therapy led by the American College of Cardiology and Heart Rhythm Society.Sherry Saxonhouse

She has been an electrophysiologist at Atrium Health and Sanger for 12 years and says, “As a female electrophysiologist, I’ve always been treated equally in regard to all aspects of our practice.”

Saxonhouse has also been instrumental in developing Sanger’s cardiology fellowship program to train the next generation of cardiologists. Faculty for this program include Saxonhouse, Dr. Nicole Cyrille-Superville, Dr. Noreen Kelly, Dr. Rachel Garcia and numerous other female physicians.

“Our fellows will learn from the best and see firsthand how women are making critical gains in cardiology and their careers,” says Saxonhouse.

From recruiting female specialists to expanding women’s heart health services to offering the latest in patient education and empowerment, Sanger will continue championing women’s health. Learn more about cardiovascular care at Atrium Health Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute.