When Gillian Murtagh decided to become a doctor, she already had a personal interest in the unique challenges women face in the industry. "I come from a long line of pioneering physicians who happen to be female," Murtagh says. "I've always known that this career would come with some extra challenges."
Now Associate Medical Director of cardiovascular diagnostics at Abbott, Murtagh helps support some of the company's most ambitious projects — most recently, a highly sensitive blood test for troponin levels that can help address a glaring problem for heart disease, particularly among women.
Abbott's ARCHITECT STAT High Sensitive Troponin-I test aids in dealing with the difficulty of lower circulating levels of troponin found in women experiencing a heart attack, or Myocardial Infarction (MI). Troponin is a protein that's used as a biomarker for MI. Using Abbott's High Sensitive Troponin-I blood test can help identify these levels of troponin earlier. This test – that's available outside of the U.S. and not commercially available in the U.S. – could have a major impact on the cardiac health of women all over the world, and it demonstrates how the ambition of Abbott's engineers and scientists can help reform the industry for both patients and physicians alike.
Making Her Own Way
"I didn't always want to be a doctor," Murtagh recalls. "I was very into alternative music, and I had bright red hair. I certainly didn't fit the mold of a medical student." Yet, she was inspired by the vision of Dana Scully in the '90s television show X-Files — not just a female doctor, but a female doctor who was also a strong FBI agent.
Suddenly, it seemed possible to not only pursue a career in medicine, but to do it without sacrificing any of her individuality. "I realized you don't have to be a cookie-cutter doctor working in an office to also have an impact. I started to look beyond traditional medical roles."
While working in cardiology, Murtagh began to see that Abbott was a place where she could forge a truly personalized career in medicine: "I could see that there were lots of women in leadership roles. At a company like Abbott, your dreams can be as big as you want them to be."
The Science Behind Detecting Heart Disease
One of those dreams for Murtagh was improving the detection, diagnosis and treatment of cardiac issues in women.
According to the Mayo Clinic, women tend to present with symptoms that are less easily identified as representing a heart attack. Whereas men often present with intense chest or shoulder pain — a distinctive and easily isolated signal — women who have heart attacks often feel more ambiguous effects like shortness of breath, neck or back pain, intense fatigue, clamminess, nausea, or some combination of these. This means that for women, biomarkers may become even more crucial in making the diagnosis.
Furthermore, when doctors test for levels of troponin that may indicate a MI, they look for a threshold level — but often, the levels of troponin found in female patients are below that threshold, even if they are having a heart attack.1 Physicians soon noticed that female patients would go on to suffer more severe heart failure and worse outcomes, even though their troponin levels had initially tested below that threshold. This suggested that women can often present with lower circulating levels of these crucial markers, even soon after a major cardiac event.
With the ARCHITECT STAT High Sensitive Troponin-I test, Abbott engineers and scientists helped give physicians the ability to more effectively detect heart attacks in women, and to more quickly detect heart attacks in all patients.
Pursuing Her Passion at Abbott
For Murtagh, she now travels globally to educate physicians about heart disease and the potential improvements in care this blood test can provide for their patients, as well as supporting and running additional research in cardiac diagnostics. All of this, while finishing her MBA.
Murtagh credits Abbott's size and scope with much of this success in evolving heart attack diagnostics: "Abbott has the ability and resources to do really groundbreaking research. If I could only see one patient at a time, I'd never have the impact that I could working with a major company like Abbott. I get to do work that impacts thousands of people around the world at a time."
With this opportunity, Abbott employees are encouraged to pursue solutions to the problems that spark their personal passions. Whether it's a pure engineering problem or one that resonates on a sociological level, Abbott's resources make it possible to create a better world through science.
1Shah, et. al. High sensitivity cardiac troponin and the under-diagnosis of myocardial infarction in women: prospective cohort study. BMJ 2015; 350:g7873.