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How supplemental coverage can help shield women from the high costs of heart disease

Here’s an exercise in public perception: Type “person having heart attack” into a search engine, then look at the images that come up. Notice anything? You’re looking at a bunch of men.

Google searches aren’t clinical, but they can reflect attitudes and perceptions at large. And in the case of heart disease, those perceptions can be deadly. Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States. In recent years, 300,000 women died of heart disease, accounting for roughly 1 in every 5 female deaths.1 (It does kill more men than women, but not overwhelmingly – 347,879 men died of heart disease in the same time period.)2

Heart disease looks different in women

It isn’t just search engines that suggest people think of heart disease as a men’s issue; it’s women themselves. In 2019, only 44% of women were aware that heart disease was the leading cause of death among women.3 And awareness has actually dropped over the past 10 years – in 2009, 65% of women knew the facts.3 Women of color were particularly likely to have seen a drop in awareness levels, with Latinas showing an 86% decline in the past 10 years.4

This lack of awareness takes concrete form. It shows up in women’s survival rates (fewer women than men survive their first heart attack),5 in women delaying their own care (women wait 37 minutes longer than men to seek treatment when having a heart attack)6 and even in the way Good Samaritans respond to women in crisis (bystanders are less likely to perform CPR on women than they are on men).7

Heart disease isn’t just viewed differently between the sexes. Heart attacks actually take different forms – women tend to have different symptoms than men. Go back to those pictures that turned up on Google. Chances are it’s not just a man, but a man clutching his chest. But women are more likely to experience the full breadth of heart attack symptoms, including indigestion, neck or jaw pain and shortness of breath.8

Women’s symptoms can be so wide-ranging that even doctors misdiagnose them. Nearly 30% of women included in one study sought medical care for symptoms related to heart disease before they had a heart attack. But 53% of them said their providers did not indicate that the symptoms were heart-related, compared with 37% of male patients.9

While some practitioners refer to these symptoms as “atypical,” the fact is that they’re not atypical. They’re female.

Supplemental insurance coverage can support female workers

Health experts are calling for change in how heart disease is researched, treated and understood by the medical community, with the goal of improving gender equity in heart disease care.10 But systemic change takes a long time, which doesn’t help women now.

Heart disease has other costly impacts, as well, such as treatment and overall care costs. One in 10 low-income families – including those with health insurance – faced out-of-pocket expenses that were more than 40% of their household income after receiving treatment for atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.11 But a family needn’t be low-income to face considerable costs: High-deductible health plans are now offered by 34% of employers.12 And even with some of the best health insurance coverages, some costs fall to patients, such as lost income because of recovery time, certain rehabilitative equipment, and things that support recovery but aren’t directly related to health care, such as meal delivery services.

Critical illness coverage can help women protect themselves against the high financial costs. Let’s say that one of your clients’ employees purchases Aflac’s group critical illness plan. If that employee suffers from a critical condition covered in the plan – including heart attack, stroke, major organ transplant or sudden cardiac arrest – she could receive a benefit of $5,000 to $50,000, based on the coverage she enrolls in, to use in whatever way helps her the most.13

Critical illness is a robust form of coverage, but it isn’t the only one available. Aflac also offers a heart event rider that pays a benefit when heart surgery and certain cardiovascular techniques are performed. (The critical illness plan pays for coronary artery bypass surgery at 25% of the face value of the benefit.) And Aflac’s Health Screening Benefit pays for certain preventive care, including annual physical exams that can help detect early signs of heart disease.

While these benefits can help alleviate some of the worry associated with heart disease and treatment, no insurance policy is a substitute for gender equity in health care. Nor can supplemental coverage be a remedy for the gaps in women’s awareness and education that often put them more at risk. But until we have greater understanding around a condition that everyone is at risk for, supplemental coverage can be a lifeline to help with the associated costs.