Navigating the Health Care System

Advice Columns from Dr. Carolyn Clancy

AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy, M.D., has prepared brief, easy-to-understand advice columns for consumers to help navigate the health care system. They will address important issues such as how to recognize high-quality health care, how to be an informed health care consumer, and how to choose a hospital, doctor, and health plan. Check back regularly for new columns.

With Valentine's Day around the corner, hearts shapes are everywhere - on cards, candy, and clothing. But every day of the year, your heart plays a big role in your health and well-being. And conditions or habits that harm our hearts, like high blood pressure or smoking, put our hearts at risk.

The risk is serious. Heart disease and strokes kill more than 800,000 Americans each year and cost $445 billion each year, according to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). People with heart disease are often unable to work or enjoy normal activities. They are also at higher risk of early death.

To help combat heart disease, especially heart attack and stroke, HHS recently joined several groups that include doctors, nurses, pharmacists, insurance companies, and drug stores in a campaign called Million Hearts. Over the next 5 years, the partners aim to help millions of Americans improve their heart health by preventing and treating high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and tobacco use.

The goals are ambitious. But the good news is that heart disease can be prevented or reduced with two approaches.

The first is making healthy choices, like quitting smoking (or never starting), and lowering the amount of salt and trans fats we consume. Today, 19 percent of the U.S. population smokes; in 5 years, the partnership aims to cut that to 17 percent.

The second approach is making treatment for heart disease available for people who need it. Simple but effective techniques, known as the "ABCS," help focus these efforts. The ABCS stand for: Aspirin for people at risk, Blood pressure control, Cholesterol management, and Smoking cessation.

We have good tools to treat heart disease, but they're not used enough. Today, less than half (47 percent) of people at risk for heart disease take a daily aspirin. The Million Hearts campaign hopes to increase that to 65 percent by 2017. Reducing salt intake, a factor in high blood pressure, by 20 percent, is another goal.

HHS is working with partners to help attain the Million Hearts goals. The partners include:

My Agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), supports the Million Hearts campaign and has tools and knowledge that can support its goals.

For example, one AHRQ-funded resource that highlights innovative practices describes how pharmacists can help people lower their risk for heart disease.

In the HealthyHeartClub.com program, pharmacists educate patients to lower their heart risk by changing their diet, exercising more, and taking the right medicines. Working with primary care doctors, pharmacists meet with patients, email them weekly, and provide access to classes and tools that support their goals. It works! After 3 months, patients' weight, blood pressure, and daily activity all improved.

AHRQ's Effective Health Care Program produces free, plain-language booklets that can help you learn about treatment options for high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They describe treatment options, discuss risks and benefits, and identify areas where more research is needed.

All these resources for the Million Hearts initiative have one thing in common—they are an excellent source of information to share with your health care provider. Together, you can discuss steps you need to take to be sure you're healthy for many more Valentine's Days in the future.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Resources

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Million Hearts
New public-private initiative aims to prevent 1 million heart attacks and strokes in five years
http://millionhearts.hhs.gov/docs/Million_Hearts_Press_Release.pdf

Million Hearts
http://millionhearts.hhs.gov/

Heart Disease Prevention: Million Hearts
http://millionhearts.hhs.gov/about-hd-prevention.shtml

Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality
AHRQ Innovations Exchange: Innovation Profile
http://innovations.ahrq.gov/content.aspx?id=3182

Effective Health Care Program
Choosing Medications for High Blood Pressure: A Review of the Research on ACEIs, ARBs, and DRIs
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/index.cfm/search-for-guides-reviews-and-reports/?pageaction=displayproduct&productID=75

Treating High Cholesterol: A Guide for Adults
http://effectivehealthcare.ahrq.gov/index.cfm/search-for-guides-reviews-and-reports/?pageaction=displayproduct&productID=351

American Heart Association
http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/

American Heart Association/American Stroke Association
My Life Check
http://50.56.33.51/mlc01/main_en_US.html

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP)
AHIP Statement on Million Hearts Initiative
http://www.ahip.org/News/Press-Room/2011/AHIP-Statement-on-Million-Hearts-Initiative.aspx

The Y
The Y Joins CDC, HHS, CMS in Million Hearts Initiative
http://www.ymca.net/news-releases/20110913-cdc.html

Current as of February 2012
Internet Citation: Million Hearts Campaign Aims to Lower Risk, Improve Care. February 2012. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/news/columns/navigating-the-health-care-system/020712.html