Women physicians may have a tendency to put their own healthcare on hold, and they're not alone–studies show that decreasing numbers of Americans under age 80 have a PCP.
According to the American Heart Association, approximately 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable.
American Heart Month (February) is a good time for doctors to check their own measures of heart health, just as they monitor these numbers for patients.
During American Heart Month (February), we often remind patients and the general public to “know your numbers”—referring to measures of heart health, like cholesterol, blood pressure, and body mass index.
But how often are we, as women in medicine, remembering to check our own numbers?
Too busy for our own good
Like women in many other professions, we are often so busy taking care of others that we forget to look after ourselves. We may postpone checkups. Some of us may not even have our own primary care physicians.
Truth be told, we may be so aware of the troubles with the healthcare system that we steer clear of it when it comes to our own preventive care.
If this sounds like you, first remember that you are not alone. In fact, a 2019 study found that decreasing numbers of Americans under the age of 80 have a primary care physician or healthcare professional.
But as a woman in medicine yourself, you know the importance of getting regular checkups. So make a plan now to get your labs and vitals checked, and have your annual PCP visit if you’ve not yet done so. Really: get out or open up your calendar or planner right now and make the appointment. If it’s after hours when you read this, then schedule a calendar reminder to call for a real appointment during regular business hours. Schedule an exact time to do this, a realistic time that works for you, within the next 1 to 2 weeks.
Once you have your numbers, you and/or your PCP can assess your personal risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). The most commonly used calculator for this is the one designed by the American College of Cardiology (ACC), the ASCVD Risk Estimator for 10-year risk.
As a woman in medicine, you already know the benefits of prevention, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded. I find this to be true even for myself, and I am a preventive cardiologist! According to the American Heart Association (AHA), approximately 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable. Yet most people don’t take the steps necessary for prevention.
The AHA has identified at least 8 key behaviors and health factors, collectively called “Life’s Essential 8,” that affect heart health. (The AHA previously identified seven such behaviors, called “Life’s Simple 7,” but has recently added sleep as a key component, recognizing the plethora of evidence supporting the many health benefits of getting adequate sleep on a regular basis.)
The eight behaviors include healthy eating, staying physically active, avoiding tobacco use, getting enough sleep, maintaining a healthy weight, and keeping cholesterol, blood glucose, and blood pressure under good control.
Now take a good, hard look at your own lifestyle. The fast pace and long hours of work in medicine can make it difficult to optimize all of the “Essential 8,” especially when it comes to getting enough sleep and following a healthy dietary pattern. And neglecting those two factors can also lead to unwanted weight gain, which in turn increases risk for development of diabetes, hypertension, and dyslipidemia—three other components of the “Essential 8.”
You may also struggle to find time to exercise on a regular basis. For instance, are you meeting the bare minimum recommendations for physical activity, which include 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity) and 2 sessions of resistance training (muscle strengthening) each week? We all know the detriments of a sedentary lifestyle, which also leads to the aforementioned CVD risk factors.
Prioritize your own health
Thus, you can see how the unhealthy cycle gets underway. You’ve probably seen it in your own patients. Just remember that we, too, are human beings, and we are not immune to the dangers of the same risk factors.
The difference is that as a woman in medicine, you do have a highly educated understanding of the medical literature and the importance of prevention. You may simply have a job or life that is too hectic to allow for the time you need to take care of yourself.
But it is well worth it to find that time—worth your own health. Take the time to figure out where you can achieve balance and make your own health a priority. It may even take major changes in the way you work, or the hours you work, or how much call you take and how you prioritize your own sleep schedule. Once again, these are conversations worth having. No less than your own health depends on it.
Just remember that as a woman in medicine, your heart counts too.
What this Means for You
As a woman physician, you're already well-schooled in the benefits of preventive health, but are your monitoring your own health? During American Heart Month (February), as you remind patients and the general public to “know their numbers”—be sure you are checking your own.