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Upstate project educates women about heart attack symptoms and early warning signs

Heart attacks in women go largely unrecognized 30 to 55 percent of the time and those who miss the warning signs and fail or delay getting help, run the risk of death or severe disability. But researchers at two SUNY institutions, Upstate Medical University and Binghamton University, have developed an educational program they believe will shorten the time to treatment and ultimately, save lives.

Women often don’t have the same kind of chest pains that men generally experience during a heart attack. They may also have a range of other symptoms, not all of them easy for the typical sufferer to identify and so in many cases, they tend to just ignore the warning signs.

In hopes of shortening women’s time to treatment, Melanie Kalman, PhD, associate professor and director of research, and Margaret Wells, PhD, assistant professor, in Upstate’s College of Nursing, and Pamela Stewart Fahs, DSN, professor and Decker Chair in Rural Nursing at Binghamton University’s Decker School of Nursing, are collaborating on a project called “Matters of Your Heart.”  The goal is to develop a program to educate women about heart attack symptoms and also to teach about the early warning signs that a heart attack might be on the way.

Drs. Kalman, Wells and Stewart Fahs conducted the first phase of their project under an intramural research grant from Upstate. They first created a questionnaire to measure a woman’s understanding of heart attack symptoms and warning signs. They then created a pilot version of an educational presentation.

Working with 141 post-menopausal women, Drs. Kalman and Stewart Fahs held small-group sessions to administer the questionnaire, present the program and then give the questionnaire again. They found that the educational program increased the women’s knowledge of heart disease.

The researchers based the presentation in part on a program that Dr. Stewart Fahs developed several years ago to teach rural residents about symptoms of a stroke. That program employed an acronym created by the American Heart Association.

The new program uses a mnemonic device, much like the American Heart Association’s use of FAST (Face, Arm, Speech and Time).

For example, researchers are testing the acronym CURB, (Chest pain, Unusual fatigue, Radiating pain, Breathing difficulties) to see how it can help women understand heart attack symptoms.

But they are especially concerned about educating woman about the early warning signs of a heart attack.  In this instance, researchers are hoping the acronym FACTSS (Fatigue, Anxiety, Chest discomfort, Tummy pain, Shortness of breath, Sleeping difficulties) does the trick.

“Acronyms can be useful as means to retain information,” said Dr. Kalman  “In health education, we’ve seen this work to describe the warning signs of stroke.’

The next phase of the project will focus on testing whether using acronyms for female heart attack and its warning symptoms improve knowledge as compared to using an educational program without them. The work will begin this spring, with funding from the Rural Nurse Organization. Dr. Kalman and Wells will administer the questionnaire and program to women in Syracuse, N.Y., while Dr. Stewart Fahs will bring the educational questionnaire and program to women in rural areas.

In a second phase of their research, Drs. Kalman and Stewart Fahs plan to give the presentation to many more women over a broader geographical area. Eventually, they hope to do a longitudinal study to discover whether their program improves the way women respond when they experience signs of a possible heart attack.

Once they’ve perfected the program, the researchers will share it with hospitals, community health agencies and other healthcare organizations. Besides offering the PowerPoint slides for classroom use, they might someday use communication technologies to give the presentation a broader reach, researchers say.

Caption: Upstate College of Nursing faculty members Melanie Kalman, PhD, associate professor and director of research, left, and Margaret Wells, PhD, assistant professor, are collaborators on the Matters of the Heart project.

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