After her brother died of a massive heart attack at the age of 57, Hazel E. Riley and her siblings felt a call to action. They wanted to spread the word about hypertension. How to diagnose and monitor the condition. How to take control of their health.
So, Riley became a participant and mentor for the American Heart Association’s Check. Change. Control, a multi-disciplinary program launched in communities around the country to increase awareness and improve blood pressure results in its participants. It involves local volunteer health mentors, recruited and trained to encourage participants to monitor and stay with their health plans. It also uses Heart360, a powerful web-based tool to help track health factors like blood pressure, give suggestions about action plans, and connect to healthcare providers and mentors to share progress.
About 78 million people in the United States have high blood pressure. Also called hypertension, it is known as the silent killer because it typically has no symptoms but can lead to deadly consequences such as heart attack, stroke and kidney failure. And while hypertension runs rampant in the African-American community, it knows no boundaries. No matter the race, the station in life, work status or education level, anyone can be affected.
Riley says she recently heard that her daughter’s friend died of a heart attack at 34. “This is something that crosses all lines, the knowledge and the lack of education, the inner city and the suburb, the having insurance and not having insurance,” she said, “ all ending up in the same place, dead too soon.”
Her brother Ronald Glen Durant left behind a wife, a son, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. He had been married more than three decades before slumping over behind the wheel while stopped at a red light in September 2012. He had insurance, and he already had been diagnosed with a history of heart problems. But he stopped taking his high blood pressure medication, Riley said.
“I got angry about it,” she said, “at the lack of information out there for people to really know you can die of this and for people to know what it does to your body. … Knowledge is power, and I took this situation as a totally unnecessary one.”
So when a friend mentioned the AHA program, she decided to ask her church pastor, who also happened to be her nephew, to partner with Check. Change. Control. Last year, during the first year of the program, she spread the word to her seven siblings, extended family and friends. Every Sunday, for three months, she would send reminders for participants to check and record their pressure. This year, she is easing off the reminders to let them take charge on their own, but she is making sure everyone has a blood pressure monitor and a pedometer.
In 2012, the AHA initially provided grants of $20,000 to the top 18 markets create a pilot. Now, it has spread to 90 programs in 60 markets, including Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia. The goal is to enroll 30,000 African-Americans by the end of 2014. By this past fall, more than 13,000 African-Americans and participants of other ethnicities had enrolled.
“People are taking control of their own health,” said Jessica Moise, senior director of community and multicultural health initiatives for the AHA’s greater Washington, D.C. region. “Heart360 can be used for other than blood pressure, for blood glucose, weight management and cholesterol. It gets the participant involved in taking a stake in their own health.”
Because the program involves technology and access to computers, Moise said it is important to form alliances and partnerships with community groups, senior centers and others who have access to computers and can help with the technology.
In the Houston and Gulf Coast area, where Riley lives, the AHA has partnered with churches, school districts, social groups and community organizations, said Aabha Brown, the AHA’s senior director of health equity in the region. This year, the project is working with the staff and teachers at one of the largest high school in Texas.
Check. Change. Control, Brown says, is a call to action to everyday people, no matter their background. “In the Houston program, we have doctors, lawyers, custodial staff and people who are unemployed,” she said. “Most people don’t personalize their risk, but hypertension isn’t something that just affects the poor or the uninsured. It’s a big equalizer. It affects CEOs to stay-at-home moms.”
The goal for the first year of the program was to beef up enrollment. This year, Brown said, it isn’t just about getting people into the system, but also to get them to actively participate and create new monitoring and recording habits. She figures it will take about six years for the program to develop fully and crystalize.
“Just from the preliminary data, if we can get this right,” Brown said. “We can have a significant impact on hypertension across the U.S.”
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