Women in Cardiology: Spotlight on Dr Vijay Kunadian

To mark International Women’s Day 2021, we focus on the academic consultant and interventional cardiologist, Dr Vijay Kunadian. Based at Newcastle University and Freeman Hospital, Dr Kunadian undertook an international academic fellowship in cardiology at the TIMI/PERFUSE Study group, Brigham and Women’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School, Boston MA.

She has an international reputation in interventional cardiology and cardiovascular research, making her a sought-after and respected speaker at prominent national and international meetings. She has championed diversity in her specialty and acts as a role model to others; only 5% of interventional cardiologist are female in the UK, <1% are clinical academics/researchers.

In this article, she discusses how patients and colleagues interact with her, the gender gap in heart disease and the future research that could address this, and gives advice for young women who wish to pursue a career in cardiology.

From your point of view, what are the main assets you may have as a woman, compared with your male colleagues? Do you feel your patients have a different attitude to you because you are a woman? 

I live and practice in a predominantly Caucasian population in the North East of England. Patients love me, they love talking to me, particularly female patients as they feel they can communicate better with me. I make sure to empathize with them and hear their full story. Over the years, I have received some lovely comments and feedback from my patients which inspires me to do more and want to continually do the very best for my patients.

What is the main obstacle you have encountered to become an interventional cardiologist? How did you manage to overcome this?

As a trainee, when I look back I don’t think I had major obstacles. I really went for getting good at what I was/am passionate about and enjoyed doing with a real hunger to learn. I did not allow negative words influence me and made the most of every opportunity that came my way. I think I probably faced “challenges” as a consultant and as an academic as  I was/am the only female in these roles. If someone is interested in cardiology and any sub-specialty, they must be encouraged and supported. I am here because my mentors (mostly men) gave me positive feedback, like ‘well done’, ‘you are doing fine’, ‘I am proud of you’, etc., which motivated me. But I think also my determined and focussed attitude to everything helped me.

Do you feel your colleagues treat you differently because you are a woman?

I always look at the positives in everything and what I can learn from feedback/experiences (both the positives and negatives). I can think of many individuals (UK and abroad) who have helped shaped my career and I had been very fortunate to work with great mentors, colleagues and professional friends from the very early stages of my career. I am probably my worst critique. I always set the bar very high for me which in a way has helped me to become who I am today.

Why do you think the gender gap in diagnosis, treatment and aftercare for heart disease exists?

This is due to the tradition of women putting others (partners, children, family) first. Unfortunately , heart disease is considered a man’s disease, and there is lack of awareness among patients, the public and care providers. Women often associate major illness with women’s organs, such as breast cancer, cervical cancer, uterine cancer, etc. But the data suggests that CVD is the leading cause of death in women worldwide.

What research would you like to see funded that could help us better address the gap?

Studies that address unique characteristics in women, such as coronary artery spasm, microvascular disease, studies on pregnancy related cardiovascular conditions such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, hypertension in pregnancy, gestational diabetes. I would like to see studies funded that evaluate the effect of female hormones on CVD in young, pre-menopausal, early and late menopausal women, as well as studies that look into the effect of mental stress on women’s CV system. The list goes on. These are just a few of the areas where there is a paucity of adequate research to impact the management and prevention of CVD in women.

What advice can you provide to young women fellows wishing to pursue a career in interventional cardiology?

Go with your heart. Find good mentors who you trust and respect to guide you. There are some incredible, highly accomplished individuals who would be willing to mentor and guide you. I had and still have amazing mentors in the UK and abroad. Get your head down, stay focussed and you will see the fruits of your labour down the line. In Cardiology, and Medicine in general, there is no shortcut. Sometimes you might think ‘I am not going anywhere’, but these are times of growth and development. The bottom line is to make the most of opportunity and support from mentors, work hard, be proactive, always be willing to learn, be grateful, respectful of others, and go with your passion. That’s what brought me here. Ignore people who tell you that “if you choose cardiology, then it’s tough on women” or “you’ll never be able to have a career as well as a family”.  It is crucial that students/trainees are nurtured to strengthen the workforce of the future in our amazing specialty where there is much need for dedicated and committed professionals.