By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Earlier this year, the American Heart Association held three listening sessions with community stakeholders. The organization wanted to determine the top health-related issues affecting Milwaukeeans and how it could help.
Tim Nikolai and Oby Nwabuzor, the community impact directors for the American Heart Association, noted that the sessions helped the group gain insight.
“The data is out there but they helped us define the why behind the what,” Nikolai said.
Nwabuzor added that the participants helped the American Heart Association prioritize the areas it needs to focus on and what challenges it needs to keep an eye on.
The association determined three priorities to focus on: improve food security and access to healthy food; eliminate tobacco use; control chronic disease.
These discoveries aren’t necessarily new, and Nikolai pointed out that the American Heart Association has done work regarding these issues in the past. The current coronavirus pandemic has exasperated these issues and made them more important, he said.
For example, food insecurity has always been an issue in Milwaukee, Nikolai said. The organization wants to go beyond the surface level. Instead it wants to determine where the resources are allocated and the barriers that communities face when it comes to acquiring the resources they need.
Nwabuzor emphasized that coordination is key. It isn’t just food insecurity, nutrition is important too, she said.
“Everything is correlated,” she said. For example, if there are no walking paths in the area it’s hard for people to go for a walk or if there are no stores in the near vicinity it’s harder for people to get access to not only food but healthy food.
The barriers need to be knocked down so everyone in Milwaukee has an opportunity to be healthy, she said.
Funding and advocating for policies are two key areas that play a role in the association’s ability to help communities face these issues, Nwabuzor said. The pandemic has made it more difficult to do either.
Still the association is confident in its ability to help struggling communities overcome food insecurity, frequent tobacco use and chronic disease.
It’s policy, system and environmental change strategies to eliminate tobacco use include working with the community on several layers. The association wants to work with schools to create comprehensive and equitable tobacco policies, expand smoke-free housing protections and establish zoning restrictions to limit the use of tobacco retailers near schools and parks.
To help control chronic disease – especially blood pressure – the American Heart Association wants to improve clinical practices regarding accurate blood pressure measurements, specifically self-measured blood pressure monitoring (SMBP), work with employers to provide insurance coverage and more.
A key tactic in all of its efforts are maintaining its relationships with the community and continuing to build its relationship with policy makers and other groups.
Most recently, the organization collaborated with a dozen other organizations and the Common Council to get funding for SNAP incentive programs, Nikolai said. Nikolai added that it’s important to establish trust between the American Heart Association, other organizations and the people it serves.
The association makes an effort to be a part of coalitions where it can listen, Nwabuzor said. This helps residents see that the American Heart Association is involved in the community, she said.
As the American Heart Association prepares to move forward with its action plan, it estimates it will take about one to three years to establish certain practices and to see a change.