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When it comes to your heart health, don’t sell yourself short

OK, you have survived a heart attack or cardiac repair surgery. Now what?

Experts agree that the most important thing you can do now is to participate in a customized cardiac rehabilitation program that is organized and supervised by your physician. A cardiac rehabilitation program will provide a structured plan to increase cardiac health and fitness through exercise, nutrition, education, medical treatment and supervision.

Participation in a cardiac rehabilitation program can prolong life for decades after a heart attack or cardiac surgery, and it is not just the quantity of life prolonged, but decades of high-quality living. The key is not just to survive, but to thrive.

The medical community acknowledges that participation in a cardiac rehabilitation program is the key for excellent long-term outcomes, but it is estimated that far less than one-half of all cardiac-need patients actually participate in a recommended rehabilitation program. Why is this?

There are a number of factors involved, including but not limited to:

Lack of general awareness
Lack of effectively getting the word out by the healthcare community on how critically important it is to participate
Lack of family support, knowledge and encouragement
Cost (even co-pays two-to-three times per week can be cost prohibitive)
Time consuming (one-to-two hour sessions two-to-three times per week)
Inconvenience (the hours of many rehab programs are typically nine-to-three, so participation means missing work)
Location (many people do not live close to a certified rehab program, so travel alone can take hours per session)

What can be done to improve participation?

Physicians need to impress upon patients that the long-term outcome and quality of life will be greatly improved by participating in and completing a cardiac rehabilitation program. Doctors should schedule a family meeting before discharge to initiate and get the patient enrolled in a cardiac rehabilitation program.

The meeting should include key members of the cardiac rehabilitation program such as an exercise physiologist, nutritionist or dietician and pharmacist to customize a program for the patient. Most programs are approximately 12 weeks, but that can be adjusted based on the needs of the patient.

Families should be educated about the importance of such programs so they can continually encourage and support their loved ones to participate. Hospitals should be encouraged to open more rehabilitation centers so it is not just more convenient for the patients, but also so patients will have better outcomes.

Studies have shown that participating in a cardiac rehabilitation program can cut hospital readmissions by over 30 percent. Also, rehabilitation centers should be encouraged to develop more patient-friendly hours, including operating hours on evenings and weekends.

Politicians should be encouraged to support programs and legislation that decrease the costs and other barriers that keep patients from participating. By doing so, it should be looked at as an investment that will pay rich dividends in citizens participating in lengthy, engaging, meaningful lives that will actually save money for the healthcare system in the long run.

You (or a loving family member) should recognize that by participating in a structured, customized cardiac rehabilitation program under the direction of your physician, which includes exercise, healthy nutrition guidance, medication management information, and regular medical examination, a person can not only survive but thrive with a long, healthy, engaged, enjoyable, high-quality life for decades after cardiac surgery.

Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine and one of the top 21 African American physicians in the U.S. by the Atlanta Post. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of the Minnesota Association of Black Physicians, MABP.org.

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