Cardiology societies unite to denounce racist violence


The death of George Floyd and other African Americans spurred the Association of Black Cardiologists, the American Heart Association, and the American College of Cardiology to join forces and issue an urgent letter denouncing recent and ongoing events.

Dr. Athena Poppas of the ACC

Dr. Athena Poppas

Starting off by acknowledging that these are “difficult and disturbing times,” the presidents of the three societies tied the violence into the bigger public health picture. “Like cardiovascular disease, acts of violence and racism are core causes of psychosocial stress that promote poor well-being and cardiovascular health, especially for communities of color.”

“It’s not just one quick solution, one quick letter. It’s more of an ongoing project to raise awareness and have really defined projects. We want to have goals, tactics, and measurable outcomes. We want to make sure it’s not just a banner on the wall,” Athena Poppas, MD, president of the American College of Cardiology and one of three physicians signing the letter, said in an interview.

The Association of Black Cardiologists drafted the statement and asked the AHA and ACC if they wanted to sign on. “It felt important to join them and follow their lead,” she said. “There is a clear link between psychosocial stress and discrimination and health equity in the communities.”

Interestingly, the ABC and ACC have an existing partnership, one that included creating a “Campaign for the Future” a little more than a year ago. One of the focuses is on reducing health disparities and starting a diversity and inclusion task force that later became a committee. The groups held a joint board of trustees meeting at Morehouse University, Atlanta, in January 2020. Thinking about that time, Dr. Poppas added, “who knew what was about to transpire over the next few months?”

The letter is only one component of an ongoing effort to “find concrete ways to make change, both within the college and within our profession,” added Dr. Poppas, chief of cardiology and professor of medicine at Brown University, Providence, R.I., and director of the Lifespan Cardiovascular Institute of Rhode Island, Miriam Hospitals, and Newport Hospitals. “Thereby, there is good data that you affect health equity in the population as well.”

“We DENOUNCE incidents of racism and violence that continue to ravage our communities,” the society leaders wrote in the letter. “Given that heart disease and stroke are the leading causes of death for communities of color, particularly African Americans who have the lowest life expectancy of all racial/ethnic groups living in the United States, we are extremely disturbed by violent acts that cut to the core of the lives of our community.”

Other societies released similar statements. For example, the American College of Physicians expressed “grave concern about recent events and the American Medical Association released a statement entitled “Police brutality must stop.”

A cardiologist speaks out

“Thank you to my organizations, the Association of Black Cardiologists and the American College of Cardiology, for taking a stand,” Travis C. Batts, MD, said in a video statement posted to YouTube on June 2, 2020.

“As an African American male who has sons, brothers, and friends who are also African American, I oftentimes have angst, particularly with my sons. Despite what I do to create an environment that cultivates education and puts them in the right position, there are some people who would stop just at how they look when they approach them,” Dr. Batts said.

“I always have that fear as a father that at some point they may engage with law enforcement – and it may not turn out the way we want it to,” said Dr. Batts, chairman of medical sub-specialties and medical director of the cardiology clinic at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Tex. He also is an associate professor of cardiovascular medicine for the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., and is an adjunct assistant professor at Texas A&M University. He went on in the video to describe how a personal encounter with police years ago changed his life.

The urgent letter from the cardiology societies speaks to health care disparities, Dr. Batts said, “but it doesn’t stop there. It talks about their goals to balance these issues that we see as a pervasive problem in our community.”

The societies point out that George Floyd’s death is not an isolated incident. “Mr. Floyd’s death comes on the heels of other recent incidents caught on camera. In another 2020 incident, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while jogging in his hometown of Brunswick, Ga. Christian Cooper is fortunately alive and well to speak to the Memorial Day incident in New York’s Central Park where he was accused of threatening the life of a woman while bird watching.” They added that “another senseless death involves officers entering the Louisville, Kent., home of emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor.”

Dr. Batts said this portion of the statement was particularly poignant: “We stand and link arms in solidarity with efforts to dismantle systems that maintain excess morbidity and mortality, especially among vulnerable populations and those historically oppressed. Indeed, our collective vast membership, many of whom are at the front lines of clinical health care, has taken an oath to decisively and with kindness, compassion and grace act to relieve suffering related to ‘I can’t breathe’ in order to preserve life.”

A Positive Response

The response to the urgent letter has been “overwhelmingly positive,” Dr. Poppas said. “This isn’t political, per se. This is really about justice, about health equity, and about being moral and conscious human beings. People I hadn’t heard from in years said, ‘thank you for doing this.’ ” The comments on social media were “almost uniformly positive,” she added. “There is always one or two people who feel this isn’t what cardiology is about.”

“Although making a statement is important, so is doing the hard work to make change,” Dr. Poppas said. The goal involves “rolling up our sleeves and spending the time, the money and the energy to make changes – so 5-10 years from now, it looks different.”

In addition to Dr. Poppas, Michelle A. Albert, MD, MPH, president of the Association of Black Cardiologists and Robert A. Harrington, MD, president of the American Heart Association, signed the letter. Dr. Pappas and Dr. Batts had no relevant disclosures.

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