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Cleveland Clinic event focuses on public dialogue, education to address Black health disparities

A volunteer assists a person with a blood pressure reading.
Cleveland Clinic
Cleveland Clinic sponsored a community health event with the Association of Black Cardiologists at South Pointe Hospital in Warrensville Heights in October 2023.

Health experts are voicing concerns over cardiovascular disease in the Black community, which sees heart attack, stroke and congestive heart failure at a rate twice as high as other communities, according to Dr. Lee Kirksey, vice chair of vascular surgery at Cleveland Clinic's Heart Vascular and Thoracic Institute.

Educating the community about the risks involved and encouraging healthy behaviors is essential to drive down disease rates in the Black community, Kirksey said.

"We need to educate more around healthy behaviors that actually are preventative, eating behaviors, lifestyle behaviors that are preventative, that allow people to avoid developing chronic illnesses," Kirksey explained. "If they have chronic illnesses, it allows them to better manage those illnesses. We need to, as a health care system and as physicians, as professionals, we need to engage with the community to continue to educate on how we conduct our lives and engage in these healthy lifestyle behaviors."

That's why Cleveland Clinic is sponsoring public events like the Spirit of the Heart Walk With a Doc on May 18 at Mount Sinai-Friendship United Church on Cleveland’s East Side, Kirksey said.

The program includes a walk during which members of the community can speak with doctors and other medical professionals.

Hosting the walk is important because of the role exercise plays in preventing cardiovascular disease, Kirksey said.

"The theme of this is that we ask people to become more active," he said. "We ask them to assume healthy behaviors. And why not take this opportunity on a warm, sunny — hopefully in Cleveland, Ohio — spring day to get out and actually perform that activity with the community members."

Attendees will have access to fitness and nutrition experts along with a roundtable of medical experts, including Dr. David Margolius, director of Cleveland Public Health, Dr. Deirdre Mattina, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, and Nicholas Perry, president & CEO of The Presidents' Council, which represents Black entrepreneurs. Attendees can also get free health screenings for blood pressure, heart rate, blood sugar and body mass index.

Educating the Black community on the risks from cardiovascular diseases and changing habits to head off the onset of these diseases can be the difference in life and death, said Kirksey, who also serves as the Clinic's chief health equity and community engagement officer.

Cardiovascular disease is "a cradle to the grave phenomenon," he said. "It manifests largely when we look at the life expectancy variation that exists between communities that may be separated by just the ZIP code or within, you know, 1 to 5 miles of one another, where we can see a life expectancy that ranges from 63 years of age to 83 and 84, 85 years of age, so several decades, a couple decades of difference in life expectancy."

Cardiovascular disease can also manifest in other ailments, he said.

"When we think about end stage kidney disease requiring dialysis, diabetes, increased rates of amputation that are three to four times higher within our Black American community, that's limb amputation from poor circulation of the legs, peripheral artery disease," Kirksey said. "So there are many, many examples across several cardiovascular disease states where the outcomes, the burden of disease is greater within the Black American community."

While this is the first Spirit of the Heart Walk With a Doc, Kirksey hopes it is not the last since reducing disparities is an ongoing effort.

Cleveland Clinic sponsored a community event with the Association of Black Cardiologists last fall.

A speaker discusses diet and nutrition with a table of various foods and spices.
Cleveland Clinic
Dr. Lee Kirksey, vice chair of vascular surgery at Cleveland Clinic's Heart Vascular and Thoracic Institute, said he hopes the Clinic will sponsor more public events focused on educating communities about health.

"That opportunity to improve health has to be an ongoing dialog that increases, improves access and education around disease prevention and management of disease over the course of the life of the community residents," Kirksey said.

Stephen Langel is a health reporter with Ideastream Public Media's engaged journalism team.