Our heart is the engine that keeps our body running. That’s why problems with the heart — such as coronary artery disease, high blood pressure or heart failure — can significantly affect a person’s well-being, and, at worst, be life-threatening.
American Heart Month, in February, shines a spotlight on heart disease, the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. For African-Americans, it’s also a time to raise awareness of how cardiovascular disease disproportionately affects members of the black community. Indeed, nearly half of African-American adults suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, compared to about a third of whites, according to the American Heart Association.
This trend stems in part from the fact that African-American men and women are more susceptible than other racial and ethnic groups to a number of health conditions that increase the risk of heart disease, including high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. African-Americans can take several small steps to manage these conditions and reduce their likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular problems, including adopting a healthy diet, exercising regularly and avoiding smoking.
But improving heart health in the African-American community means more than taking care of ourselves as individuals; it requires a concerted effort by policymakers, health care providers and community leaders to address social and environmental barriers and champion proactive strategies for heart health. Only with contributions from all of these stakeholders can we build a culture of health to counter heart disease among African-Americans.
Improving access to preventive cardiovascular care is our chief priority in the fight for African-American heart health. As epidemiologists continue to study whether African-Americans might carry a gene that makes us more prone to heart problems, ensuring that our family, friends and neighbors take advantage of regular preventive screenings is critically important to identify their risk as early as possible. The fact remains that African-Americans are less likely to get screened for high cholesterol or have their blood pressure under control — despite being 40 percent more likely to have heart-threatening conditions such as hypertension, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
While care access plays a role in explaining heart health disparities, African-Americans also face unequal outcomes when they do seek medical treatment for heart conditions. For example, referrals for cardiac rehabilitation are given to African-American patients at a significantly lower rate than their white peers, according to the American Heart Journal. This important type of followup care — which includes exercise training, education on heart-healthy living and counseling — is critical for patients. The lack of such care may be one reason African-Americans experience higher readmission and mortality rates than white patients in the year after a heart attack, according to the Congressional Black Caucus Health Braintrust.
For our part, health care providers must make it our mission to remove barriers for African-American patients to preventive services, specialized care and effective followup procedures for heart health. And we must also partner with patients to determine a strategy that can help them effectively monitor and control their conditions. At Ascension, we are acutely aware of the challenges that keep minority patients from accessing healthy heart care. That’s why we recently established an ambitious goal: to eliminate race-, ethnicity- and language-based (REaL) disparities in preventable hospitalizations related to heart failure by 2022, as well as to achieve a significant reduction in heart failure admissions rates for Medicaid patients in our network.
Our goals are bold, but we know how to achieve them: by working side by side with patients to assess risk, consider every treatment angle, deploy the latest management strategies, collaborate with community partners and connect to necessary specialists and subspecialists. These efforts, coupled with education, innovation and a commitment to healthy communities, can help providers, policymakers and the African-American community eliminate disparities and save the hearts and lives of many more diverse patients.
Maryland is the president of Healthcare Operations and chief operating officer of Ascension Healthcare.