KITE trainee’s project seeks to bring attention to women’s issues in cardiovascular research

Racquel Brown is discussing her work to address this unmet need ahead of International Women's Day, which recognizes the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of premature death for women in Canada. Each year 25,000 women – or one every 20 minutes – die as a result of cardiovascular disease.  Despite these numbers, it’s estimated that two-thirds of all research in the area focuses primarily on men. 

KITE trainee Racquel Brown is on a mission to change this fact and she’s teamed up with the James Lind Alliance (JLA) on a Women’s Heart Health and Cardiac Rehabilitation Priority Setting Partnership on a project designed to make a difference. The JLA is a non-profit initiative that enables clinicians, patients and caregivers to work together to identify and develop research priorities. 

The purpose of Brown’s project is to stimulate research topics that address the priorities of people with the lived experience of heart disease and clinicians in the field of women’s heart health and cardiac rehabilitation.  

“This partnership is a great way of engaging and understanding the needs of people with lived experience, which research has often neglected,” said Brown, a member of KITE’s Cardiorespiratory Team and a masters' student at the Rehabilitation Sciences Institute (RSI) at the University of Toronto. 

“Women experience heart attacks, heart disease, differently compared to men. The structural makeup of men and women are quite different in terms of the heart size, valves, and arteries. This often causes failed screenings for women as equipment is designed primarily for men and not always able to detect the difference between sexes which results in misdiagnosis.” 

Brown is discussing her work to address this unmet need ahead of International Women's Day, which takes place on Wednesday, March 8. The global event recognizes the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. It also marks a call to action for accelerating women's equality.

Brown expects to launch the first survey in this ground-breaking project in May and will target people with lived experience and clinicians working in the field. Respondents will be asked to list any questions they have about cardiac rehabilitation referral, enrollment, adherence, completion and post-completion maintenance. 

This survey will be completed by the summer and the questions posed by respondents will be reviewed to see if they have been answered in research literature. Questions that have not been addressed will be included in the second survey that will be sent out at the beginning of September.  

The second survey will be compiled of questions that have not been answered in literature and will ask respondents to rank the importance of each question. Their responses will be whittled down to a list of 25-30 questions by Brown and her team.

People with lived experience, care givers, and clinicians will then be invited to a workshop in January, 2024 to identify the 10 questions they believe are top priorities. 

“We’re hoping these priorities become future research studies that eventually lead to more women enrolling and completing cardiac rehabilitation programs,” said Brown, who is the trainee leading this project.  

“Cardiac rehabilitation completion has been shown to reduce future risk of disability and death by up to 50 per cent. However, women are approximately 36 per cent less likely than men to be referred to cardiac rehab and only 50 per cent of those who do enroll actually complete the program.” 

Brown expects to publish her findings in mid to late 2024. 

“We're very thankful to be collaborating with an excellent team of national partners, including our steering group of patients and clinicians, the JLA, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Canadian Association of Cardiovascular Prevention and Rehabilitation,” said  KITE scientist Dr. Tracey Colella, who is also an associate professor in the Faculty of Nursing and RSI at UofT, the project co-lead and Brown’s masters’ co-supervisor with KITE affiliate scientist Dr. Jennifer Bethell. 

“Brown’s graduate work will be critical to create a research agenda that incorporates the unique expertise of patients, caregivers and clinicians focused on women's heart health and cardiac rehabilitation,” said Dr. Colella.