Did you know that heart disease is the number one killer of women worldwide? Since 2016, more women have died from this disease than ever before. The upward trend is not only alarming the medical community, but it’s calling health care experts like Dr. Judy Luu of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC)’s Division of Cardiology to direct action.

“The MUHC is a part of a global movement to better understand heart disease in women, and especially women from marginalized, remote, and racialized communities, who face additional barriers to care,” says Dr. Luu.

Dr. Judy Luu, MUHC cardiologist

Dr. Judy Luu, MUHC cardiologist and founder of POWER Hub

This is why her team is working on the POWER Hub (Pathways to Cardiovascular Care for Women from Ethnic, Racialized, and Remote Communities), a vital heart health initiative focused on mitigating risk factors and increasing access to care for women from disadvantaged groups. The MUHC Foundation is proud to support this important initiative by fundraising for Dr. Luu’s team and helping bring medical equity to all women in Quebec and across Canada.

“Women make up 50.4% of the population in Canada, but we’re largely missing from historical research and we’re paying the price for it,” says Nancy Perry Dossous, Director of Development at the MUHC Foundation. “Unfortunately, the research gap is significantly wider for women of colour, largely due to systemic issues that leave this community vulnerable.

Thankfully, the MUHC is leading the way for an inclusive and equitable approach to heart health. POWER Hub will not only fill the gap in cardiac research for women from racialized and remote communities, but it’s also laying the groundwork for a transformative Women’s Heart Health Center at the MUHC. Dr. Luu’s initiative promises improved screening, expert-level understanding of risk factors, and will address barriers to care.

“Often, factors such as cultural differences, language barriers, and the challenges of rural living combine to create significant barriers in accessing health care services,” explains Dr. Luu.

“All these moving parts are contributing to increased risk factors and more women dying from what can be a preventable disease.”

“Research shows that for women, social and psychological factors, ranging from trauma to a history of discrimination, greatly contribute to heart disease.”

While screening, doctors often ask about things like smoking and eating habits, cholesterol, and high blood pressure, but Dr. Luu believes that a woman’s heart health is much more complex than that. Research shows that social and psychological factors, ranging from trauma to a history of discrimination, greatly contribute to heart disease.

“It’s often seen as taboo to speak of mental health, but anxiety and chronic stress are major risk factors for heart disease,” explains Dr. Luu. “Our research shows that, despite women and men experiencing similar levels of chronic stress, women have higher markers of inflammation in their heart compared to their male counterparts.”

Other researchers have also shown that racialized women and women from vulnerable groups, such as those with refugee status, face unique stressors that are only exacerbated by systemic bias and language barriers.

For Dr. Luu, this project is personal. As a first-generation immigrant born in a refugee camp in Indonesia, she has witnessed her family’s personal challenges in navigating the health care system in Canada. Her parents, who were displaced after the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War, faced significant health disparities and inequities due to multiple barriers. The POWER Hub project embodies her dedicated efforts to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion into mainstream medicine and health care research, drawing inspiration from her own lived experiences.

“Growing up with limited resources, I understood all the difficulties that you can face as an immigrant who doesn’t speak the language, and especially how that relates to health care,” says Dr. Luu.

Reflecting on her personal experience as a displaced person is always an emotional one, but it’s the thread that connects her to her work.

“We want to get right into the heart of these under-represented communities and let them know we’re here to help. I’m very connected to POWER Hub and see this initiative as a call to action that will bring about meaningful change. As health care workers, we have a mandate to seek out and promote equity where we can, ensuring that members of our community receive the support they need,” says Dr. Luu.

“Collaboration and people power are at the heart of POWER Hub, and there are many key players who are essential to its success. It’s not just about clinical practice, but about philanthropy, advocacy, research, and collaboration.” – Dr. Judy Luu

POWER Hub aims to establish a multidisciplinary network of health care partners, researchers, nurses, people with lived experience, and importantly, people on the ground, who are directly engaged with the communities they’re serving. This line of communication is critical in order to better understand the risk factors, raise awareness, and improve heart health for women from underserved communities.

“When I envision what a women’s heart health centre will look like at the MUHC, it’s not just about research and working in isolation. Collaboration and people power are at the heart of POWER Hub, and there are many key players who are essential to its success. It’s not just about clinical practice, but about philanthropy, advocacy, research, and collaboration.”

While the POWER Hub is still in its early stages, there is an introductory webinar launching in January with the Jamaica Association of Montreal, with the purpose of increasing awareness about the work they’re doing and generating a discussion about risk factors and how to recognize heart disease in women.

It’s especially important to Dr. Luu that her team is directly involved in the work on the ground, with plans to visit their community centre and host educational sessions about the women’s heart health program.

“We’re collaborating with the Black community and the Caribbean network in Montreal, and we’ll be reaching out to various other cultural communities, as well as partners who have lower socio-economic positions, such as the unhoused community,” explains Dr. Luu.

Importantly, Dr. Luu underscores the role of compassion in this type of community outreach, an undertaking that needs to be approached with a unique balance of skill and heart.

“What’s unique about POWER Hub is that it extends beyond the clinic, and beyond the lab. It’s most important to us that these communities feel seen and heard, and that they’re directly involved in their care. To achieve this, we need to be on the ground with them, showing up to build meaningful relationships,” explains Dr. Luu.

POWER Hub represents a commitment to equity, bridging the research gap in women’s cardiac care and underscoring the MUHC’s commitment to community care.

Dr. Luu’s initiative is made possible by generous donations to the MUHC Foundation’s Dream Big. Fix Broken Hearts campaign, which is raising $50 million for lifesaving heart research and care at the MUHC. Your contribution can help support women’s heart health, making care more accessible. To learn more and to donate, visit https://muhcfoundation.com/works/fix-broken-hearts