Harnessing technology innovations to improve cardiovascular health outcomes

During medical school and residency, I saw my mentors make a broad impact by both taking care of individual patients and by working within public health to get the latest evidence-based insights into the hands of primary care doctors, cardiologists and other subspecialists in a position to influence health outcomes in entire communities.

Today, as a cardiologist and as president of the Aetna Foundation, I am now in the position to create a positive disruption that can help improve patient health in communities disproportionately affected by cardiovascular disease and stroke. It’s clear that one of the most effective ways to create a powerful multiplier effect and ultimately improve health outcomes is to empower researchers and institutions to access new technologies to impact patient care in a real-world, practical clinical setting today—not just as a promise for tomorrow.

From 2000 to 2010, the mortality rates from cardiovascular disease declined by approximately 30 percent. While that number is encouraging, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that heart disease continues to take a toll on many populations across the country.

It is one of the top 10 leading causes of death for African Americans. And, even though African-American adults are 4 percent more likely to have high blood pressure, they are 10 percent less likely than their non-Hispanic white counterparts to have their blood pressure under control. Additionally, the American Heart Association reports that Hispanics who have experienced a stroke exhibit blood pressure that is 6 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites.

At the Aetna Foundation, we believe there is a need for new solutions to help bridge the health divide and shift the downward spiral of cardiovascular disease outcomes in underserved communities. We know changes can be implemented broadly if we support the institutions and researchers at the forefront of utilizing new technology in patient-centered approaches.

That’s why we’re making an investment of more than half a million dollars in grants to help institutions poised to make a change. These grants will take a broad look at technology from the physician’s perspective, creating new ways to engage with patients, speed the adoption of proven innovative surgical tools and help empower patients to track their progress and improve compliance in simple ways.

For example, we are supporting a patient-centered trial at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore that focuses on generating evidence for the application of mHealth in the monitoring and promotion of physical activity. The research aims to address obesity and chronic comorbidities such as cardiovascular disease during a five-week randomized, double-blind controlled trial of digital activity tracking text messaging to ambulatory preventive cardiology patients.

We’re also working with Saint Luke’s Hospital Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., on the development and implementation of a novel shared decision/transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) tool. TAVR has emerged as a less invasive option for aortic valve replacement for some patients, which offers substantial mortality reduction and quality of life improvement. Now, physicians and patients need the right tools to better understand who can benefit most from this approach. We’re supporting the research that will help physicians utilize the clinical trial findings to reach a much larger pool of patients who could benefit from TAVR.

I continue to be inspired by the patient-centered approaches that institutions like Johns Hopkins and Saint Luke’s take to improve cardiovascular health outcomes, especially in underserved communities. In addition, we are also working with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Towson University in Maryland to improve disparities in cardiovascular screening practices and to improve the health of stroke survivors.

I truly believe that by supporting the work of organizations working to improve health outcomes through new innovations, we can make an impact on entire communities—which will help all of us.

Garth Graham, MD, MPH, is president of the Aetna Foundation and an interventional cardiologist. He serves as an associate clinical professor in cardiology division at the University of Connecticut in Farmington. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where he also led the Office of Minority Health. He holds a medical degree from Yale School of Medicine, a master’s in public health from Yale School of Public Health and a bachelor of science in biology from Florida International University in Miami. He completed clinical training at Massachusetts General Hospital and Johns Hopkins. He is board certified in both internal medicine and cardiovascular disease.