Faith and an understanding of hardship drive a doctor's work

By American Heart Association News

Photo courtesy of the Medical College of South Carolina
Dr. Brent Egan is the American Heart Association's 2019 recipient of the Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award. (Photo courtesy of Medical University of South Carolina)

Dr. Brent Egan is on a mission to prevent and control high blood pressure, focusing on medically underserved, lower-income and black communities.

Egan started working in South Carolina in 1992, when the state had the nation's highest cardiovascular mortality rates, in 50th place. By 2009, that ranking had climbed to 33rd due in part to his and his colleagues' efforts. Most recently Egan helped develop a national high blood pressure program through primary care practices.

For his contributions, Egan, a professor of medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina College of Medicine and vice president of research at the Care Coordination Institute, will receive the American Heart Association's Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial award in Dallas next month.

Egan's personal connection to his work began not in the Deep South, but in the Midwest.

"I grew up in a tiny town in northwest Michigan, where the closest physician was more than 15 miles away," he said. "It was a low-income area, and most people didn't have jobs during the winter. I really have an affinity for people facing so many hardships."

Working with one of his attending physicians, Dr. Stevo Julius, a renowned expert in hypertension, Egan found his calling during his third year of medical school.

"As a Christian, you get a sense of what God really wants you to do, and that was it," he said.

The field focuses on prevention, which Egan prefers. And high blood pressure has touched almost all members of his family. That includes his grandparents – three of whom died from related diseases – as well as his father, mother, brothers and one of his three adult children. "So for me, it's also a personal mission," he said.

When Egan started working in South Carolina, he largely reached out to people through faith communities, particularly African Methodist Episcopal churches. More than 40 percent of black men and women have high blood pressure, which develops earlier in life for black Americans and is usually more severe than in whites.

Additionally, he said, because black Americans are more likely than whites to live in poverty, they have less access to insurance and medical care. Egan, who helped fellowships develop their own lifestyle programs to reduce cardiovascular risk, also addresses biblical verses that people might use to justify avoiding treatment and relying totally on prayer.

"Rather than trying to convince people of your way, make sure you're addressing values that are important to them," he said.

Egan's most recent project has been testing and promoting the blood pressure control program MAP, which stands for measure accurately, act rapidly and partner with patients, developed with the American Medical Association and Johns Hopkins University.

In a published paper, he reported that in just six months, the program increased the rate of blood pressure control from 64% to 74% among 21,035 patients at 16 primary care clinics. CCI is now collaborating with about 1,100 practices with more than 2.5 million patients.

Egan, who had never tasted okra or sweet tea before moving south, also initiated a healthy eating cookbook. DASH For Good Health Southern Style (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) gives Southern recipes a heart-healthy twist and is available for free. Egan personally recommends the stewed tomatoes and the okra and sweet potato pie.

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