The Heart of the Matter: Doctors Lead an Initiative to Improve Cardiovascular Health for African Americans

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As Americans are expressing interest in bettering their health, the African American community remains stagnant on health improvements, says Dr. Christopher J.W.B. Leggett, director of cardiology at Medical Associates of North Georgia. In addition, a study done by the American Heart Association indicates that African Americans remain at greater risk for cardiovascular disease and stroke than white Americans, which may partially be a result of how blacks receive treatment for such ailments.

The difference between the cardiovascular treatment received by whites and minorities is increasing. To combat the problem, some of the country's leading physicians have joined forces to develop an initiative called Close the Gap, which raises awareness of the issue and ensures that eligible candidates receive the medical attention they deserve, regardless of background.

"These disparities exist even when we adjust for insurance, age, or income. Minorities continue to fall short in terms of less access," says Leggett who serves as a member of the Close the Gap steering committee.

A collaborative effort between the medical company Boston Scientific and its partners, including the Association of Black Cardiologists and Black Coaches and Administrators, Close the Gap was launched in February with the goal of defining the disparity problem on a national level while simultaneously developing the necessary tools to provide local solutions.

"If you eliminated the disparities and brought the standard of healthcare in African American populations up to the standard of the Caucasian population, you would essentially save 900,000 lives," says Dr. Charles Noble, an Ohio-based electrophysiologist who also serves on the steering committee.

With pilot projects in 10 major cities, including New York City; Atlanta; and St. Paul, Minnesota, the focus is on community education. Through seminars and brochures, Close the Gap reaches out to both patients and physicians, addressing the issues of healthcare awareness and cultural sensitivity.

Citing patient culture as one of the hurdles to be conquered, Leggett says it is necessary for minorities to not only familiarize themselves with diseases that plague their communities, but also to be open to and educated about the various treatment options available. "Sometimes the appropriate treatment could be recommended by the physician but refused by the patient," says Leggett.

On the other hand, doctors cannot avoid the role physician bias plays in widening the gap that divides minority cardiovascular care from that of the white population. "We as doctors have to own up to being participants in this disparity," says Leggett, who accepts that the bias may not be intentional on the part of most physicians, but a side effect of socialization that should not be ignored. …