Heart Disease: What We Can Do To Empower Patients and Save Lives

Derek Robinson, M.D. ǀ MARCH 29, 2024

Many people don’t know heart disease is the leading cause of death, affecting 350,000 Americans every year. To promote community awareness on heart health, I was interviewed by a local TV station in February. I want to share a few highlights and expand on some of the ideas from the February interview here, in case this information helps when you’re talking with your patients.

Heart Attack vs Cardiac Arrest: Do your patients know the difference?

As an introduction to the topic of heart disease, some basic definitions may be helpful to your patients. They may not know that a heart attack is a circulation problem that occurs when a blood clot or blockage restricts the flow of blood to the heart. By contrast, sudden cardiac arrest is the abrupt loss of all heart activity due to an irregular heart rhythm.

We can’t overemphasize the symptoms of heart attack because some of these aren’t obvious:

  • Chest pain that may feel like pressure, tightness, pain, squeezing or aching
  • Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulder, arm, back, neck, jaw, teeth or sometimes the upper belly
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Jaw pain

Some patients may need a reminder that symptoms can differ from person to person. For example, women are more likely than men to experience nausea, unexplained tiredness, and jaw pain when having a heart attack.

Also, since patients may assume heart attacks are always sudden and intense, it’s important to point out that this is the exception, not the norm. Because most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort, reminding patients to pay attention to their body’s signals might help them recognize a potential emergency. 

No one wants rush to the ER unnecessarily, but it’s never worth taking a chance when symptoms are unusual. 

When every second counts …

While a heart attack is a circulatory problem, it can trigger electrical changes in the heart, and that’s the danger – sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating. In the TV health segment, I emphasized to viewers that, while most heart attacks start slowly, cardiac arrest can occur quickly and can lead to death if treatment isn’t received in minutes. A person experiencing cardiac arrest may collapse, become unresponsive, may not be breathing, or may be gasping for breath.

Bystanders Can Be Lifesavers

Your patients may be surprised to learn that 80% of sudden cardiac arrests happen outside of the hospital, where we all work, play, or live. We all may remember last year watching aghast when NFL star Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field due to cardiac arrest. But he survived thanks to the fast action by his trainer in administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Learning CPR is something everyone can do to be prepared to help someone experiencing cardiac arrest. The great news to share with patients is they don’t need a medical degree to learn CPR. They can move from being a bystander to a lifesaver by taking a CPR class. According to the American Heart Association, giving CPR as a bystander can double or triple chances of a person’s survival. And in a way, a person might consider learning CPR as “paying it forward,” in case they’re the one who may need help in the future.

Your patients can visit the American Heart Association or American Red Cross websites for information on CPR classes. It’s also worth checking with local community centers and fire stations that may offer free CPR training to area residents.

Your Patients Aren’t Powerless

Being prepared to help others is a worthy pursuit but some of your patients may need a reminder that first they must take care of themselves.

Your patients may know that some heart disease risk factors can’t be changed, such as genetics, family history and age. Some patients may face additional barriers due to social determinants of health.

Despite any challenges, it’s important to help your patients understand that they aren’t powerless – some heart health risk factors can be managed or even changed:

  • Excessive weight
  • High blood pressure
  • High LDL cholesterol
  • Diabetes 
  • A diet high in salt and saturated fat
  • Low intake of potassium
  • Smoking
  • Stress

The good news is there are things your patients can do to reduce their risk of heart disease, such as staying physically active, losing weight, limiting alcohol intake, eating healthier foods, and scheduling health and wellness visits with you and other health care providers to manage existing conditions. These are practical ways your patients can contribute to better outcomes for themselves so they can be there for family, friends, loved ones and others, and the conversation is worth their time.

In closing …

On behalf of all of us here at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for continuing to partner with us to support the health and wellness of our members, their families, and the larger community.

We appreciate your readership and value your feedback on CMO Perspective, Blue Review, News and Updates, and other resources on our website. If you have ideas or comments you’d like to share, please email our Blue Review editor.


American Heart Association, Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest Differences, Dec. 2, 2022.
The Heart Foundation, Heart Attack: Men vs. Women, March 29, 2017.
Mayo Clinic, Sudden cardiac arrest: Symptoms & causes, Jan. 19, 2023.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, About Heart Disease, May 15, 2023.

The above material is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician or other health care provider. Physicians and other health care providers are encouraged to use their own medical judgment based upon all available information and the condition of the patient in determining the appropriate course of treatment. References to third party sources or organizations are not a representation, warranty, or endorsement of such organizations. The fact that a service or treatment is described in this material is not a guarantee that the service or treatment is a covered benefit and members should refer to their certificate of coverage for more details, including benefits, limitations, and exclusions. Regardless of benefits, the final decision about any service or treatment is between the member and their health care provider. Further, the information presented is not intended to replace or supersede any requirements set forth in your contract with BCBSIL. Any samples or suggestions in this publication are for illustrative and/or educational purposes only and should not be relied on in determining how a specific provider will be reimbursed.