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Ask about aspirin

Karen Miller, M.S.W., M.P.A., and Alan Hirsch, M.D., kicked off a statewide effort to prevent heart attacks and strokes in Hibbing earlier this year. (Photo: Jim Bovin)

A new public health campaign aims to educate Minnesotans about the benefits of low-dose aspirin

Behold the power of the media: When the U.S. Department of Transportation introduced us to Crash Test Dummies (remember them? “You could learn a lot from a dummy”) in 1985, only 14 percent of Americans used seat belts. Today, that number hovers around 79 percent. Experts recognized that seat belts were the most effective protection against serious injury and death in car accidents, and they set out to educate the American people about buckling up.

On a similar note, experts at the University of Minnesota’s Lillehei Heart Institute and the School of Public Health have developed a program to spread the word about steps Minnesotans can take to prevent a first heart attack or stroke. To start, the program will highlight the benefits of taking low-dose aspirin daily.

Called “Partners in Prevention,” the pilot program rolled out in Hibbing—chosen because of a tradition of teamwork on behalf of its citizens—earlier this year.

“Why should any Minnesotan, or American, suffer a preventable heart attack or stroke?” asks Alan T. Hirsch, M.D., director of this new initiative and the University’s vascular medicine program. “Traditionally, the health system is focused only on reacting to the emergency of the disease. This campaign is all about prevention.”

The science on aspirin is clear, says Hirsch. “It’s incontrovertibly true that when used correctly, daily low-dose aspirin can help reduce the number of heart attacks and strokes suffered by both men and women.”

Research shows, however, that fewer than 30 percent of Minnesotans in the target group—men ages 45 to 79 and women ages 55 to 79—actually take aspirin daily.

Increase that number by even 10 percent, believes Hirsch, and more citizens would stay healthy—and the state would realize millions in health-care cost savings as the number of people hospitalized by strokes and heart attacks decreased.

Since the goal of the Partners in Prevention project is to promote a major cultural change, the program has saturated Hibbing with media messages—using billboards, social media outlets, newspapers, newsletters, brochures, radio spots, and websites—urging older residents to ask a health-care professional about whether they should take daily aspirin to help prevent cardiovascular disease.

Health worker education is another critical component of the program. As Hirsch points out, doctors now routinely ask women in annual wellness visits if they’ve had a mammogram or ask older adults if they have had a colonoscopy. “But has your doctor ever discussed aspirin use or other heart health measures with you at those visits?” he asks. “Most likely not.”

Karen Miller, M.S.W., M.P.A., the associate director of Partners in Prevention, explains that this program tackles that problem directly, looking for ways to integrate the aspirin question into the health-care workflow.

“We’re trying to reach people in all areas,” she says, “including those who don’t go to doctors routinely. It’s as comprehensive an effort as we can make it.”

While the pilot program in Hibbing is scheduled to end in September, Hirsch hopes to expand Partners in Prevention throughout the state over the next two years—pending additional funding, which his team is actively seeking.

“We can work together to roll back the epidemic of disability we’ve created in the last half century and prevent heart disease,” he says. “Once this message is considered central to community health, we hope that Minnesota will become an example to the nation.”

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