Heart disease remains the number one killer of women in Canada. As both the director of cardiology and physician-in-chief of medicine at Women’s College Hospital, Dr. Paula Harvey is dedicated to changing that, including through groundbreaking interdisciplinary work and a focus on the unique needs of women.
By Sarah Treleaven
When Dr. Paula Harvey applied to medical school, she kept it a secret. Growing up in Adelaide, Australia, she had excelled in the sciences from an early age — but becoming a doctor still seemed outside of the realm of possibility.
“It was quite ostentatious for me to think that I might get in, given the high school I was applying from,” recalls Dr. Harvey. “It wasn’t exactly known for its academics. Plus, medicine in Australia at that time seemed to be hereditary.” Her lack of pedigree was compounded by the fact that the vast majority of medical students were male. “When I applied and was accepted, it was a surprise to everyone,” she says. “Including me.”
Since then, her list of accomplishments — if not exactly surprising — have been nothing short of truly remarkable. She now serves as the director of cardiology and chief of medicine at Women’s College Hospital (WCH), overseeing both a cardiac rehabilitation program for women — the only program in the country specifically tailored to women’s healthcare needs — and a groundbreaking new cardio-rheumatology clinic, in addition to leading innovative cardiac research.
The first of its kind in Canada, the cardio-rheumatology clinic addresses the needs of patients with rheumatologic disorders, like arthritis or lupus, that have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and an elevated chance of heart attacks and strokes. “We know these patients have elevated blood pressure, increased incidence of diabetes, and they’re more likely to be sedentary,” explains Dr. Harvey. “We’re working to prevent cardiac complications by addressing risk factors in these patients.”
The clinic draws on WCH’s interdisciplinary strengths and focus on women’s health to address a specific gap in healthcare: women are disproportionately affected by both heart disease and rheumatoid disorders, and yet they’re less likely to receive the necessary interventions or rehabilitative resources. “It’s wonderful to be able to come together with my colleagues at WCH to offer a much-needed service for these patients, which can really make a big difference,” says Dr. Harvey.
Dr. Harvey says that this groundbreaking new clinic is a good example of the opportunities available to her and her colleagues at Women’s College Hospital, Canada’s leader in advancing healthcare for women and health system solutions that impact the lives of all Canadians. “It’s an incredibly supportive, collaborative and innovative environment to work in,” she says. “The cardio-rheumatology clinic is a great example of how two specialties come together seamlessly with work across senior teams in order to improve patient outcomes.”
Dr. Harvey first developed an interest in women’s healthcare and advocacy while she was working on her PhD in clinical pharmacology, exploring cardiovascular risk factors for menopausal women undergoing hormone replacement therapy. “I started to realize that there are key biological differences between men and women,” she explains, “but we were working in a male paradigm, and how we treated women was based on the approach for men. Women differ from men across our reproductive lifespans, in terms of the type of cardiovascular disease we get, and the physical, family and lifestyle factors that influence disease.”
In 1999, Dr. Harvey came to Canada on a two-year postdoctoral fellowship with the intention of returning to Australia. But after working in the cardiovascular physiology lab at Toronto General Hospital to enhance her knowledge of women and cardiovascular disease — and meeting a Canadian, whom she later married — Dr. Harvey found Toronto to be a good personal and professional fit. “I decided that I wanted to make my home here,” she says. She joined the faculty of the University of Toronto, and the University Health Network in 2002.
When Dr. Harvey joined WCH in 2010, she says that some questioned her choice to move from such a large academic environment to a smaller institution – albeit one with a significant national and international impact. For her, it was an easy decision. In conversations with WCH’s then-physician-in-chief, Dr. Gillian Hawker, Dr. Harvey came to understand and appreciate the hospital’s focus: the commitment to excellence in women’s healthcare and research, and also the development of a new model of care with an ambulatory focus. “I was completely energized to come to a place with a spirit of innovation, and a patient-focused, women-centric mandate,” says Dr. Harvey. She was also enticed by the prospect of female leadership and mentorship offered by WCH.
A testament to the impact of the leadership and mentorship that drew Dr. Harvey to WCH is the fact that she now holds the position once occupied by Dr. Hawker. She has also been named as the F.M. Hill Chair in Academic Women’s Medicine at the hospital.
On a daily basis, as Dr. Harvey works to improve outcomes for the patients in her care, she’s reminded of why she was initially drawn to WCH. “It’s a place where you can come up with innovative ideas that you believe will make a big difference and you can get support to implement them,” she says. “For me, it’s been an incredible series of opportunities that are both stimulating and an opportunity to give back in multiple clinical, research and leadership spheres.”
For more than 100 years Women’s College Hospital (WCH) has been developing revolutionary advances in healthcare, and working to close the health gaps that exist in healthcare for women because their unique needs are not taken into consideration. Today, WCH is a world leader in the health of women and Canada’s leading, academic ambulatory hospital. It focuses on delivering innovative solutions that address Canada’s most pressing issues related to population health, patient experience and system costs.