By Kavya Sundar, Health Policy Intern, Office of the Chief Medical Officer
As I look at my honey-colored cereal box every morning, I am reminded of the importance of eating “healthy” and lowering my cholesterol, one of many healthy behaviors promoted commercially across the country. Yet, the prevalence of chronic disease conditions remains staggering—in fact, heart disease and stroke are the first and third leading causes of death in the United States. This remains true even as the percentage of adults with high cholesterol, one of the major risk factors of heart disease, has been reduced by almost 50 percent since the early 1960s.1 Even as one of the most technologically advanced countries in the healthcare field and the home of various commercial efforts, the United States cannot fix its “heart problem” without improving access to care.
What is true access to care? True access to care can be defined as consistent access to affordable health insurance and quality preventive and recovery services. Expanding access to care can significantly improve our nation’s heart health in multiple ways. For instance, with healthcare coverage, you are able to regularly visit your healthcare provider and track your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. This allows you to understand what blood pressure level is “normal,” what may be considered “elevated,” and if a problem, intervene early and effectively.
When visiting your healthcare provider, you are also able to learn more about how lifestyle and behavioral practices impact your physical health. You may be given guidance on ways to eat healthier or exercise regularly in order to prevent chronic disease. In addition, health education allows you to be an informed consumer when reading food labels and purchasing food items, a skill that many U.S. adults lack today.2 This is especially important because an individual’s eating habits may play a significant role in determining his or her well-being. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), avoiding artificial trans-fat, a manufactured substance present in many fried items, may prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year.3
Early and ongoing action are crucial in preventing death due to chronic illness, and consistent access to care may allow you to receive support for positive health habits and understand the signs and risks associated with certain health conditions. For instance, only 27 percent of respondents to a 2005 CDC survey were aware of all major symptoms of a heart attack and knew to call 9-1-1.4 This shows how both prevention and health literacy, defined as the ability to comprehend “basic health information,”5 are important factors in improving the nation’s well-being.
In a world that changes frequently, access to care is one constant we need to improve our nation’s heart health. Through the enactment of the Affordable Care Act, individuals in the United States are now able to access basic primary care, preventive services, and other essential benefits regularly, reviving the true nature of access to care.