IB_womensheart_webAn alliance of hospitals and health systems is counting on the power of the patient to keep women with heart disease on track regarding their care.

The WomenHeart organization’s National Hospital Alliance trains female heart patients to lead support groups for other women with heart disease, with an eye on maintaining awareness of what is an underestimated threat.

Heart disease among women, while less prevalent than it is among men, is still the leading cause of death for the gender. One in four female deaths could be attributed to heart disease, killing close to 300,000 women in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, just 54 percent of women recognize that heart disease poses their biggest health threat, according to the CDC.

WomenHeart and the alliance of about 40 hospitals wants to change that. "We are trying to raise awareness, as well as support women who are living with heart disease,” says Mary McGowan, CEO of the organization. McGowan says the alliance’s work aligns well with the increasing number of women’s heart programs being created at hospitals across the country.

A cornerstone of the alliance is its annual Science & Leadership Symposium held at the Mayo Clinic — the most recent session was in October — where heart patients from each member hospital get training on how to spread the word on women and heart disease.

And the support groups appear to be helping. According to WomenHeart, a study found that among 5,000 attendees of the WomenHeart support groups, 93 percent felt their quality of life was enhanced, 85 percent improved their ability to communicate with their provider, and 85 percent also believe that the meetings helped them cope with the challenges in maintaining their treatment and medication.

“The alliance has been really useful for us, and we’re really happy with it,” says Keri Kimler, special assistant in regenerative medicine research in the Center for Women’s Heart & Vascular Health at the Texas Heart Institute, a founding member of the alliance.

“There’s really nobody else who knows better than someone living with the disease to be able to relate to someone who’s been diagnosed with a heart condition,” Kimler says. “They understand the needs of a woman best.”