The Piedmont Heart Institute Addresses Heart Disease & the Family

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Piedmont Heart Institute, Atlanta

Piedmont‘s Family Heart Disease Program embraces the trend of preventive disease initiatives.

Each year, roughly 700,000 Americans die from heart disease and 325,000 of those die suddenly without any prior symptoms. In an effort to thwart this scourge, the Piedmont Heart Institute (PHI) in Atlanta initiated the Family Heart Disease Program, which “reaches out to people in the community, identifies those at risk and crafts a treatment plan to mitigate those risks,” says Michele Molden, president and CEO of PHI.

The pilot Family Heart Disease Program, which ran from February to September 2009, was offered free of charge and funded by an anonymous donor. Initially, the program included only family members of patients diagnosed with heart disease. Today, it has expanded to include all patients and residents of the community. Participants pay for the services via insurance or out of pocket. The program integrates CT scans to detect calcium build-up, a medical history review, blood tests to detect genetic markers for heart disease and a cholesterol analysis to create an overall picture of a person’s health and potential risks. The tests take approximately one to three hours.

“We really wanted to invest in the health of our patients,” says Molden. “We set this up as a facility where people can come in, get assessed for risk and begin early intervention. If a person needs treatment, we can start the process sooner rather than later and hopefully never have to perform open heart surgery, put in a stent or see any of the other downstream impacts of cardiovascular disease.”

Auto pilot on

Under the direction of Szilard Voros, MD, medical director of cardiovascular MR and CT, the pilot program enrolled 50 patients hospitalized at PHI for cardiac procedures, along with two of each patient’s immediate family members, for a total of 150 participants. There were three important findings.

First, 22 percent of first-degree family members recorded a positive calcium score with significant plaque buildup that warranted aggressive drug therapy. Comparatively, in the general population, only 7 percent of people without a first-degree relative with coronary heart disease will test positive for plaque.

“This means that having a relative with heart disease triples a person’s risk for calcium or plaque buildup in his or her arteries, which is staggering,” Voros says.

Second, the researchers found that the Framingham Risk Score (FRS) did not correlate well with findings on calcium CT scans. All but one of the family members who tested positive for plaque were classified as “low risk” by FRS. “These results highlight the importance of more sophisticated screening tests beyond the traditional methods,” Voros says.

Third, Voros and his team found a very strong correlation between genetic variances in specific genes related to blood pressure regulation and positive calcium scores. Investigators tested 15 gene variances, and while the results are preliminary, Voros says: “This is a big finding because a new pathway of blood pressure regulation may contribute to a calcium deposit in the arteries.” The research also may help tailor blood pressure medication to a specific genotype.

Knowledge is power

Piedmont includes a 481-bed hospital and 31 ancillary care locations. The non-profit institute with 85 cardiologists uses community partnerships, such as with the Atlanta Falcons football team, to promote awareness and advertise the Family Heart Disease Program. In September 2009, PHI employees offered Falcons fans at each home game the opportunity to take a free online risk assessment test and blood pressure screening. Depending on the score of the seven-minute risk test, patients could then be eligible for admittance into the Family Heart Disease Program. “The risk assessment gives the patient an opportunity to connect with PHI, make an appointment and see a physician,” Molden says.

The total risk assessment package, including blood tests and calcium scan, can be completed in a few hours and results can be returned the same day, says Joseph I. Miller, MD, a PHI cardiologist. After assessment, patients undergo a consultation by physicians to determine the next steps.

People can self refer for a calcium CT scan, says Miller, but the Family Heart Disease Program is different as it extends the focus onto families at risk for heart disease. “The program offers blood tests to evaluate cholesterol and hemoglobin