Educator leads American Heart Association effort to eliminate Upstate’s silent killer
CLEMSON — Members of the newly formed American Heart Association Upstate board of directors are working to shape the board’s strategy to lower rates of hypertension in Upstate South Carolina. The board will seek to raise the percent of patients with controlled hypertension from around 55 to 70 percent, a goal the board sees as achievable over the course of two years.
The board formed in October 2016 and is comprised of health care professionals, top executives and influential higher education and community leaders. Ronald Gimbel, associate professor and chair of Clemson’s public health sciences department, is president of the board and has been tasked with leading the change effort.
“This is just the start of years of work to achieve an audacious goal,” Gimbel said. “If we can reach a significant number of people and help them control blood pressure, we can dramatically reduce mortality from stroke and heart attack, which is unquestionably our state’s primary health issue.”
The board hopes to make a significant dent in this problem quickly by utilizing the wide-reaching network afforded by its diverse membership. The board already has many of these bases covered with members from faith-based organizations and even competing health care systems.
According to Gimbel, changing the course of a person’s health for the better probably won’t occur in a single doctor’s visit, but when the board’s message is delivered via church groups, marketing efforts in the workplace and health care outreach, that likelihood increases.
“In order to be successful, we have to communicate best practices in maintaining personal health and catch hypertension before it becomes a bigger problem,” Gimbel said. “Communicating that effectively means a person hears it constantly and from more than one source.”
The board’s newly formed mission committee will be responsible for leading strategies to enact its directive. Much like the board itself, the committee is comprised of a diverse group representing numerous Upstate organizations. The committee recently met to design the board’s road map to achieving its goal. The meeting spawned numerous ideas, strategies and measurable goals on which the committee can focus in the short term before its next meeting in May.
Some of those strategies include reaching out to elected officials, employee health providers, recreational organizations, community centers and medical outreach programs to help spread information and tools to combat hypertension. These include American Heart Association initiatives like “Check. Change. Control.” and “Target: BP.”
The need for people to control hypertension is great across the nation. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 million people have high blood pressure and only 54 percent of them have it under control.
South Carolina has the eighth highest rate of hypertension in the country, and the other three American Heart Association boards in the state all chose independently to concentrate their efforts on hypertension. Shannon Emmanuel, senior director of community health at the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association, said South Carolina is the only state in the nation in which all boards chose to focus on hypertension.
“That unified effort really speaks to the level of the problem in South Carolina,” Emmanuel said, “but it also proves that these groups of experts and health care professionals are striving to make the most impact in each area of the state.”
Gimbel said the “why and how” of increasing the amount of people with controlled hypertension is clear, but the monumental challenge lies in changing people’s behavior. He said the obvious sense of cooperation and encouragement among the diverse members making up the mission committee is heartening as the board sets its sights on helping people make that change.
“We want to get to a point where people go out of their way to exclude South Carolina when they mention the ‘stroke belt’ in the South,” Gimbel said. “A challenge like that requires everyone at the table — even those who might otherwise be competitors — collaborating to push the same message.”