Annabelle Santos Volgman, a Chicago cardiologist, has a suggestion for her male colleagues on Wear Red Day at the upcoming American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in New Orleans.

“Some of the men wear red sneakers or red jackets,” she said. “I think they should wear a red dress.”

She’s joking, but she wants to make a point. Volgman, medical director at the Rush Heart Center for Women, believes that more male doctors need to share her zeal for raising awareness and spurring women to take control of their heart health.

Scientific Sessions’ Wear Red Day, which is Monday, Nov. 14, is part of that. It’s an outgrowth of the AHA’s Go Red For Women campaign. The initial effort has grown into a national movement with events around the country, ongoing awareness projects, a big online and social media presence and National Wear Red Day every February. Macy’s, the national sponsor, has raised more than $55 million and counting to support the campaign and promote the red dress as its symbol.

“We want this to be like the pink ribbon for breast cancer,” said Volgman, who wears red every day and had her office walls painted to match. “We’ll keep plugging away until everyone understands what it means.”

While organizers can point to a lot of success, Volgman said the battle goes on to correct a major medical misconception: “A lot of people still think heart disease is a man’s disease,” she said. “Since 1984 there have been more women dying of heart disease than men, even though they are at a lower risk for coronary artery disease than men.”

She points to many reasons, from early research focusing on men to different warning signs in women to different treatments. When statins were developed three decades ago to treat high cholesterol, they were primarily prescribed for men, while women were commonly given hormone replacement therapy – which didn’t work.

Subsequent research and initiatives have improved the situation, but results are hard to quantify. Can color-coded campaigns really help?

“I’m a believer in public awareness,” said Dr. Robert Harrington, an interventional cardiologist and chairman of the Department of Medicine at Stanford University. “I agree it sends an important message and I think it does make a difference.”

Harrington, who produces his own podcast about cardiac health and other medical issues, embraces red in his own way.

“I’ll certainly wear my red socks and my red tie,” he said. “We all need to be part of this. It’s particularly important because the vast majority of cardiologists are still men.”

And he has his own favorite symbol: Tuesday, Nov. 15, is Wear Sneakers Day, when the same cardiologists who wore red on Monday are supposed to ditch their Rockports and Naturalizers for a comfy pair of Nikes or Skechers. The goal is to encourage physical activity and all the benefits therein.

“It does send a message to see a bunch of people in sneakers walking through the convention center to show that walking is part of a heart-healthy lifestyle,” Harrington said. “My own sneakers are red,” he notes.

Although he believes that sending messages has an impact, Harrington said, “I’m also a scientist, I’d like to see the data.”

Brooks Lancaster, a national spokesman for the American Heart Association, said that Go Red For Women has acquired a huge database of people who want to learn more and better understand their risks.

“Our challenge is to move those people from just being interested to taking action and making lifestyle changes, like losing weight or becoming more active,” he said. “We do see some of that happening, but we need to see more of it. The AHA is built on science. But if we’re not putting that science into use by raising awareness, then we’re not doing the best we can do and we’re not driving the most lifestyle change.”

As for the red dresses, cardiologists of any gender can also opt for a chic red dress pin, available at Macy’s during February or year round at suitable for any lapel. Volgman said the pins help male cardiologists signal to female patients that they’re focused on women’s heart health.

“Women don’t care about the gender of the doctor,” she said. “They just care that they know about heart disease in women.”

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