Promoting Heart Health in a High-Risk Community

February 28, 2018
student at a dinner event

High blood pressure impacts people of all races and ethnicities, but it hits African-Americans especially hard – according to the American Heart Association, more than 40 percent of non-Hispanic African-American men and women have hypertension.

With this disease, awareness is especially important. That’s because hypertension – often called “the silent killer” – typically produces no obvious symptoms. The damage to blood vessels that it causes can lead to heart attack or stroke.

To help bring awareness about high blood pressure to a particularly at-risk community, one nurse recently launched a successful education campaign at her church in the metropolitan Washington, DC, area.

Priscilla “Prissie” Coomson, MSN, RN, developed the program as part of her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) studies at Chamberlain University.

Coomson explained that while certain people may have a genetic pre-disposition for hypertension, diet, exercise and stress management also play an important role. Within her church community – made up almost entirely of African immigrants – economic factors added an additional layer of complexity.

“We have people here who have never been to the doctor because they are uninsured, and others who will only see the doctor when they are sick,” she said. “I realized this was a major, major opportunity for education because preventive care is critical to reducing the risk of disease.”

Using the skills she had learned in the DNP program, Coomson consulted scientific research about nurses’ roles in health promotion, both in general and within the church environment, and selected appropriate theoretical frameworks to help facilitate lifestyle change.

Her program began with a health fair, where she and other healthcare professionals at the church offered blood pressure readings, nutrition information and educational materials, including visual depictions of the damage that hypertension can do to blood vessels.

Then, over the next four weeks, she used daily WhatsApp messaging to motivate the 36 participants and encourage them to set achievable goals for exercise, nutrition and stress management.

She encouraged participants to use healthier oils, in lower quantities, and to incorporate more vegetables into their diets. To get them moving, she hosted physical activity sessions three times a week at the church. Healthy-eating potlucks brought people together and served to reinforce nutritional awareness. Meetings after church on Sunday allowed her to check in and offer encouragement.

For Coomson, this was an opportunity to educate her community in a way that others may not be able to.

“I’m originally from Ghana,” she said. “I know how this population cooks. I know what they use and the unhealthy things they do, so I was able to use specifics about their cooking and eating habits. I was able to go in knowing the things they needed to change.”

Case in point: the use of palm oil, a tropical oil with high levels of saturated fat that plays a prominent role in traditional African cooking.

“A while back, we had a health event at the church with a speaker from an outside organization,” she explained. “Someone asked, ‘We heard that palm oil is not good. Would you recommend it or not?’ And this speaker said, ‘I’ve never even heard of palm oil before – I don’t know what to tell you.’”

Coomson’s health intervention project was a success, as seen through pre- and post-surveys indicating a significant increase in healthy behaviors to reduce the risk for hypertension among participants.

Still, she said, it was not all smooth sailing by any means. “Change can be difficult. I had to engage people one-on-one many times to get them to commit.”

She credits much of her success to the personal relationships she developed with the participants. “I think it was a trust level and the fact that I was able to relate to this population.”

What’s next? Now that her health education program has proven successful, she’ll be expanding it two other branches of the church later this year and broadening the focus to also include diabetes awareness.

“Knowledge is so important,” Coomson said. “There are so many things I didn’t know before I went to nursing school that have made a major difference in my life. I want to share that knowledge with people.”

Learn more about the practice-focused curriculum in Chamberlain University’s Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree program.