Campus Life

The Medical Minute: National Cardiac Rehabilitation Week

By  Wendy W. Parmelee and Dwight Davis

“Cardiac rehabilitation: Building a strong heart. You can do it. We can help.” That’s the theme of this year's National Cardiac Rehabilitation Week this week. Across the United States, February is dedicated to raising awareness about heart disease and increasing knowledge about prevention. This week in particular, we recognize those professionals who work in cardiac rehabilitation programs. They are committed to reducing the devastating effects of heart disease and helping millions of patients each year recover from cardiac events and procedures.

Over the past four decades, cardiac rehabilitation has evolved from programs that initially focused on exercise, to an established, recommended component of cardiovascular care for patients who have experienced a cardiac event (such as a heart attack) or patients who have undergone a cardiac procedure (such as coronary stent placement or coronary artery bypass surgery). Today’s programs include a thorough cardiovascular background assessment, a prescribed progressive exercise program, cardiac risk assessment and reduction, patient education and counseling. Short-term and long-term goals are set and closely monitored. Staff works closely with referring physicians to address cholesterol problems, medication management, weight loss, blood pressure control, nutrition, diabetes management and recurrent cardiovascular symptoms.

We know regular exercise, a healthy diet, and controlling stress improves cardiovascular health. Studies show a 25 percent reduction in death in patients participating in cardiac rehabilitation programs compared to patients who do not, and a recent study even demonstrated a “dose effect” -- patients completing 36 sessions had a lower risk of heart attack or death than patients completing just 24 sessions.

Still, cardiac rehabilitation is significantly underutilized. Only 30 percent of eligible patients participate. Reasons include travel distance, low individual physician referral patterns, and lower referral rates for women, minority patients and the elderly.

Winning the hearts and minds of women

Another major impact of cardiac rehabilitation has been in the area of public education. Local programs and the national organization (American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation) have assisted in focusing attention on the area of women and heart disease. It is a fact that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women. Yet, surveys have demonstrated that almost 50 percent would not seek urgent medical attention if they had symptoms of a heart attack. This disconnect has lead to the Go Red for Women Study, which evaluated awareness and heart health trends since 1997.

The good news is that women are more knowledgeable than 10 years ago, but many still lack an adequate understanding of cardiac symptoms and heart healthy principles. This was especially true for minority women. The study found that women frequently neglected their health in order to care for others in their families. In addition, they were affected by confusing media reports about heart healthy lifestyles. These findings add importance to the continued educational campaign being waged collectively by all heart organizations.

The American Heart Association’s (AHA) strategic goal for 2020 is to improve the cardiovascular health of Americans by 20 percent, and reduce heart- and stroke-related deaths by the same amount. To approach these goals, cardiac rehabilitation programs will need to work toward improving access, patient interventions, and public education about cardiovascular disease.

To that end, Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute supports the AHA’s Go Red for Women movement, and Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute’s cardiac rehabilitation program is committed to producing results that improve the quality of life for all patients. For more information about the program visit, or call the CareLine at 1-800-243-1455.

Dwight Davis is a professor of medicine and associate dean for admissions and student affairs, Penn State College of Medicine, as well as medical co-director, cardiac rehabilitation program, Penn State Hershey Heart and Vascular Institute. Wendy W. Parmelee is manager of Penn State Heart and Vascular Institute’s cardiac rehabilitation program.

Last Updated February 22, 2010