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Heartfelt Inquiries: Am I going to have a heart attack?

Am I going to have a heart attack? It’s the first of five questions that cardiologist Dr. Winston H. Gandy Jr. implores you to ask of your primary physician on your next check-up. And then, he says with a wide grin, watch your doctor squirm. “Typically, you assume your doctor has followed the necessary protocol in order to ensure your health. By asking these questions, you put the doctor on the spot,” explains the cardiologist who practices at Atlanta Cardiology Associates and is a founding member of The Piedmont Heart Institute. “First, they’ll be wondering who told the patient to ask these questions; but ultimately, if they tell the patient one thing and if they haven’t done their job, and the patient gets a second opinion that says otherwise, they could get sued.” So what does the doctor do? “Because you inquired about the potential occurrence of a specific condition, he’ll order a stress test, for starters, and that begins the process of you putting your health into your own hands.”

The remaining four questions are equally poignant — Do I have cancer? Do I have diabetes? What is my ejection fraction? And what are my cholesterol levels? — and potentially lifesaving.

As co-founder of the Maynard Jackson Foundation for the Elimination of Health Disparities and co-chairman of a National Steering Committee to end health disparities between ethnic minorities and women, Gandy surveyed doctors across the nation and discovered that the cause of the disparities isn’t as much an issue of access as it is the interaction that occurs between the doctors and patients once inside, regardless of gender and race.

This explains why while cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of all Americans, African Americans are still less likely to receive the same level of care than Caucasians; specifically, white males.

“If a white man and black man showed up with the same exact symptoms, which indicate sudden cardiac failure, the Caucasian male will get the defibrillator 50 percent of the time while white females will get it 25 percent of the time. African Americans lag behind at 10-12 percent. The access is there, but how are the doctors interacting with you?” Unfortunately, the interaction may only be skin deep.

“What we discovered is that it’s not necessarily an outright bias or prejudice as is commonly assumed, you may look younger than your stated age, and doctors are taught to be observant, so it may be a blessing when a certain group of people look 65 when they’re really only 50. More gets done on their behalf — and earlier. The key is to demand the routine screenings even though we may not fit the description.”

A simple stress test, he found, could unearth a host of other physiological problems, which explains why he dove into cardiology in the first place. “All during med school, I became the go-to guy because I had a thirst for understanding the heart and how it affects the rest of the body. There is no shortage of ways to apply your knowledge of the heart.”

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