That research, by the way, includes not just those (white, middle-aged) male subjects. Even in animal research (which must take place before human subjects are studied in clinical trials), only male laboratory animals have been used for decades.
I instinctively reverted to rhyming off a list of FACTS for you.
Cardiologists like those who taught the class of 2008 during our training believed that facts like these are far more meaningful if shared by real live women who had actually survived a cardiac event themselves rather than by somebody with no lived experience. And that made sense to all of us.
But let’s look at why I believed that:
When I first arrived at Mayo for my training in 2008, I was like a sponge. And I soaked up as much as I could. I wanted more facts, more data, more important information, hanging onto every word from every faculty member onstage (all of them female cardiologists), day after wonderful day.
But I was a highly motivated learner. I had somehow survived a dramatically misdiagnosed “widow maker” heart attack. I was desperate to learn how that had happened, as much as I could, as fast as I could. Every one of my 45 classmates was similarly motivated. And as Dr. Sharonne Hayes (founder of the Mayo Women’s Heart Clinic and Director of the WomenHeart Science & Leadership training programs) likes to say, we all left Mayo that week “gunning for bear!”
What she meant was that, like my other heart sisters, I couldn’t wait to return home to start telling as many women as possible every shiny new fact I’d just learned. The prestigious Mayo Clinic reputation opened many doors for me, including those opened by physicians and nurses who were among my first audiences.
But most people, unless they have become personally involved (as either a freshly-diagnosed heart patient or as the loved one of such a patient) are simply not motivated to learn about a medical condition that they don’t believe will ever affect them – any more than I was before my own heart attack.
Yet it appears that we’re still using the awareness-raising communication tools we’ve always used: more facts, more data, more information – and now look how that has turned out.
Right now, I have far more questions than answers about how we should respond to this report – all of us, from big organizations like the American Heart Association, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, or academic-based women’s heart centres to individual heart patients like our 900+ patient educators throughout the U.S. and Canada, all grads of the WomenHeart annual training since 2002.
But it seems evident that throwing more information at women stopped working at some point during the past decade.
Dr. Virginia Howard at the University of Alabama (one of the co-authors of this report) summed up her own dismay at what she called this “highly concerning trend”:
“Preventing heart disease remains our Number 1 priority — we should be as close as possible to 100 percent awareness.”
We should be, but here’s the warning from Ann Christiano and Annie Neimand at the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications. As they wrote in their report called Stop Raising Awareness Already, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review:
“Because abundant research shows that people who are simply given more information are unlikely to change their beliefs or behavior, it’s time for activists and organizations seeking to drive change in the public interest to move beyond just raising awareness.”
It’s also basically what Amy Johnston, a PhD student and researcher at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, also said when she Tweeted her own response to this report:
“I think all of this shows that we NEED to think outside the box. It’s like saying we can recruit more women into clinical trials by simply putting up more posters.
“Doing the same thing over and over again does not work.”
One concerned reader on Twitter wondered after seeing this report: have we ever thought about asking a celebrity who has been diagnosed with heart disease to help raise awareness?
My response: “We’ve not only thought of it, but every time we hear about another celebrity being diagnosed, we get excited by the fantastic news! Yet another great opportunity to raise awareness!!”
Amy Johnston’s compelling image of putting up more and more posters, doing the same thing over and over again, is an apt metaphor: our messaging about women’s heart health has been buried under growing piles of metaphorical posters out there.
Christiano and Neimand describe most awareness-raising campaigns as “wasting a lot of time and money for important causes that can’t afford to sacrifice either.”
I just don’t know. Perhaps the big organizations might want to shift some of their revenues next year usually reserved for raising awareness to consulting with the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications – to learn why public awareness campaigns so often fail to reach their stated objectives.
The two most discouraging questions I’m now asking myself:
Have I just been wasting my time all these years?
And does wearing red one day a year during a Heart Month luncheon actually help to increase awareness of this important cause?
According to this survey report, the answers are YES and NO.
Take care, and please stay safe. . .