DULUTH — Nationally, only 13% of cardiologists are women, according to February 2019 data from the American Heart Association.

However, women make up nearly half of the cardiologists at Essentia Health in Duluth.

Eight of the current 18 cardiologists at Essentia are women. Several women in the cardiology department said seeing other women in the field not only pushed them to become a cardiologist, but also to join Essentia’s team.

Dr. Katie Benziger said while medical students are split about 50-50 between men and women, the number of women who complete the 10 years of medical school, internal medicine and specialized cardiology training is extremely low compared to other fields. Three of the biggest reasons women don’t stick with cardiology, cited in a poll by the Stanford Medical blog, are the long, unpredictable hours; exposure to radiation; and the male-dominated work culture.

“Women have gone into a lot of other fields that have long hours — OB-GYN, emergency medicine — it’s really no different,” Benziger said.

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Dr. Kathleen Braddy has seen the representation of women grow in the cardiology department since she began at Essentia in 2004. Three of the 16 doctors were women when she started. Now, five of the six most recent cardiologists hired there are women.

“Having women here and seeing that women were doing cardiology, doing the cath lab, doing critical care, and having a life was crucial and is a big part of why I’ve been here since 2004,” Braddy said.

Braddy said other hospitals where she interviewed before she started at Essentia had no female cardiologists, and one even asked her if she would agree to see all the female patients. Both men and women need to see cardiologists, so she would have been agreeing to take on half of the clients herself.

Both Braddy and Benziger had female mentors pushing them to complete their training and join the field.

“It really helped to have — at a young age — that initial contact with a woman who was in your field, because if you can’t see one, you can’t be one,” Benziger said.

Braddy said her driving factor was a love for cardiology and support from both men and women who didn’t see any cap to how far she could push herself in the medical field.

Dr. Nicole Worden shared a similar experience. She is an interventional cardiologist, so she performs more of the complex procedures like adding stents and using catheters to open hearts during cardiac arrest. Braddy also used to work as an interventional cardiologist.

Only 4.5% of interventional cardiologists are women, according to the same data from the American Heart Association.

From left: cardiologists Dr. Nicole Worden, Dr. Kathleen Braddy and Dr. Catherine Benziger pose for a portrait in an exam room in the cardiology department Thursday at Essentia Health in Duluth. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)
From left: cardiologists Dr. Nicole Worden, Dr. Kathleen Braddy and Dr. Catherine Benziger pose for a portrait in an exam room in the cardiology department Thursday at Essentia Health in Duluth. (Tyler Schank / tschank@duluthnews.com)

“Honestly, you have to be the toughest one in the room,” Worden said. “You have to be the smartest, strongest interventionist just to be considered average.”

All three doctors said the supportive environment at Essentia helped them to have family lives outside of work. The women help each other out by being flexible and covering shifts if someone needs to be with their family. Benziger said the small-town feel of Duluth helps her juggle her job and her children’s activities because she can get to most places pretty quickly from work.

They believe having women in leadership positions at Essentia has helped the environment become more welcoming and family-friendly for doctors. Benziger said there were certain aspects to having a family that men didn’t consider before, like women returning from maternity leave needing a place to pump breast milk.

“Women bring a different perspective to the table,” Benziger said. “They think differently and operate differently. “

Benziger also said the majority of health research has been done almost exclusively with male subjects, so the field of women’s heart health is in need of females to understand and include women in the conversations — both in practice and in research.

She is on the board of a number of research studies, including a women’s ischemia study. She also started a summer internship program at Essentia in 2018 that aims to recruit women and underrepresented minorities. While it will take about 10 years before students will complete their training so they can see the impact of the program,

Benziger said she has already seen immense interest in cardiology and is glad she can show the interns that the opportunity to be successful in cardiology is there for them.

“It’s intense, but we all chose it for that reason,” Braddy said. “We didn’t want the same thing each and every day. We wanted patients who are sicker than sick that we can help — and then you get to see them for the years after you helped them get over that acute event.”