05/03/2008 - 22:00

Ammerer champions coronary care

05/03/2008 - 22:00

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The recent unexpected death of her father from a heart attack, after he displayed none of the normal symptoms that can be detected and treated, initially made cardiologist Dr Michelle Ammerer question the very reason for working in her area of specialty.

The recent unexpected death of her father from a heart attack, after he displayed none of the normal symptoms that can be detected and treated, initially made cardiologist Dr Michelle Ammerer question the very reason for working in her area of specialty.

But it was her father’s death, Dr Ammerer says, that gave her added resolve to educate people in the importance of preventing and detecting the symptoms of cardiovascular disease, which is the leading cause of death in Australia, accounting for more than one-third of all deaths.

Having worked in the medical profession for more than 13 years, Dr Ammerer believes a combination of dedication and passion has driven her to achieve her dream of becoming a hospital-based cardiology specialist.

She was appointed to the role of director of the coronary care unit at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital at the age of 34, and is currently the only female cardiologist in Western Australia specialising in the sub-specialty of angioplasty.

Interventional cardiology, more commonly referred to as angioplasty, is a procedure that involves the insertion of a balloon, attached to a drug-coated stent, into a blocked artery.

When inflated, the balloon unblocks the diseased artery.

With an early interest in critical care and cardiovascular care, Dr Ammerer pursued a career in that sub-specialty, despite encountering people early in her career who encouraged her to select a field they believed was better suited to women.

‘It’s an area I’ve always liked; I didn’t set out to be the only woman doing what I do,” Dr Ammerer  told WA Business News.

“There’s a lot of on-call compared to other specialties; 24 hours a day. A lot of people wouldn’t want that.”

After gaining bachelor of medicine and bachelor of surgery degrees at the University of Western Australia, Dr Ammerer undertook a one-year clinical and research fellowship in Interventional Cardiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, at the Brigham’s Womens Hospital, in 2003.

She was one of only five people selected from a total of 900 applicants worldwide for the fellowship.

Dr Ammerer said the experience in a much larger medical institution with a high-pressured environment provided a solid training ground to hone her skills.

“It’s dog eat dog, high pressure, working with the most well-known names in the industry,” she said.

“It was a great opportunity and great challenge.”

Managing a 71-person team at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, Dr Ammerer is involved in strategic and forward planning for the unit, as well as co-ordination of infrastructure and managing funds allocated by government, including the management of tenders.

With a desire to bring a hands-on approach to management, Dr Ammerer manages patient care, staff and budgets, while balancing the political constraints and public and media awareness of cardiovascular disease.

She has been instrumental in implementing improvements to efficiencies across the coronary care unit during her tenure.

In one of her first actions as director, Dr Ammerer implemented a pilot project into early discharge planning, which had the measurable affect of reduced admissions times by about 3-4 hours and increased bed availability in the unit.

The hospital’s coronary care unit is the only unit in WA to run this program, which demonstrated that early discharge was effective in some cases without compromising patient care, with the added benefit of saving money.

In addition to her role as director of coronary care, Dr Ammerer acts as a  consultant cardiologist and interventional cardiologist, where she manages cardiology inpatients and conducts elective and emergency angioplasty procedures.

She also has a private cardiology practice at Western Cardiology at St John of God Hospital in Subiaco, encompassing all aspects of outpatient and inpatient care.

Another key achievement was her appointment as director of the National Heart Foundation WA branch three years ago.

Dr Ammerer was a founding member of the Go Red For Women campaign and played a fundamental role in steering the strategic direction of this pioneering program to raise awareness of heart disease in women.

While acting as the campaign’s medical spokesperson, Dr Ammerer also played a pivotal in raising substantial amounts of money for heart disease research, while establishing high-level corporate sponsorships.

She believes her efforts have helped raise the profile of women’s heart disease which, while being a leading cause of death among women, does not receive the public exposure of other women’s health issues such as breast cancer.

After two successful years in WA, the campaign has gained national recognition, with the National Heart Foundation agreeing to adopt similar strategies to those that have proved successful in the WA Go Red For Women campaign.

Promoting awareness of heart disease in women has also been made a national priority and is part of the National Heart Foundation’s strategic plan for 2008 to 2012.

“A lot of people don’t know that women are five times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. People just don’t know that,” Dr Ammerer said.

Dr Ammerer remains highly active as a spokesperson for heart disease awareness among women, and is a regular speaker at events and conferences both in Australia and overseas.

She also spends time raising awareness of heart disease among the corporate sector, informing people on how to reduce their risk of falling victim to heart disease, as well as lifestyle factors such as watching cholesterol levels, blood pressure, the importance of regular exercise.

She is a strong believer in people taking ownership over their heart health.

“There are a lot of highly educated people who are not aware of heart disease,” she said.

For the past 18 months, Dr Ammerer has been involved in mentoring medical students at the University of Western Australia on a voluntary basis, and is also an interviewer for admission to the UWA Medical School.

Along with her professional challenges, Dr Ammerer rates her ability to juggle her work commitments and professional development with her role as mother of an 18-month-old baby as one of her significant achievements.

And while admitting she didn’t set out to be a role model, Dr Ammerer said what she could do is encourage other women to follow their dream, and balance work and family life.

“I haven’t set out to be a role model or fly the flag,” she told WA Business News.

“A lot of women don’t specialise because they think they cant have a family.”

“I’ve always believed you have to be able to do both.”

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