While heart disease prevalence has decreased over the past 20 years, disparities are very prevalent and continue to grow. Differences in the incidence and prevalence of health status between groups are commonly referred to as health disparities.

What’s to blame?

Most health disparities are due to socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, disability status, geographic location or some combination of these. People in these groups not only experience worse health but also tend to have less access to quality health care or other important things, such as healthy food options, social supports, education and housing.

African-American children who are born with a congenital heart defect are twice as likely to die than their white peers. This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed through a multi-disciplined approach.

Changing the outlook

It is important to focus on not only raising awareness that disparities in heart health exist, but to actively work to reduce them. In rural communities, access to quality care may be due to geographic location. Individuals may not be able to travel long distances to a larger hospital, their insurance may not cover other facilities, or transportation to cardiac rehab center might be a barrier.

Working within the community hospitals to expand their capabilities to treat complex heart disease and provide cardiac rehab in rural locations is important. While it is known that cardiac rehab after a heart event improves a patient’s outcomes and reduces the prevalence of another event, only 1 in 5 patients are referred to cardiac rehab, and a large percentage of those patients do not complete rehab.

Improving efficiency

One barrier to cardiac rehab is the strict guidelines that are imposed that make centers have a physician on-site at all times. This cost is a barrier for small centers. One proposed change to that would allow for nurse practitioners and other medical personal able supervise these centers. This would reduce the costs and make it more readily available for rural areas. This legislation is currently being worked on.

Another important step to take is to empower individuals to become educated about their heart, take control of their health and advocate for themselves. Focusing on the individual patient and providing them a social support network, education and resources can help them to feel empowered to make better health care choices.

This happens with community-based programs that can be tailored to meet the needs of the individual community. Working within the community to connect the individuals with the resources they need, providing education on heart health and supporting individuals through their healthy heart journey are just a few ways that communities can begin to make a difference.

Building awareness that disparities exist and that health care cannot be a “one size fits all” approach is vital to reducing the gap. Patient organizations are committed to working together with health care professionals to address the issue of disparities in heart health.