The beat of 2019

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Adjunct Professor John G Kelly, AM

Group CEO, National Heart Foundation of Australia
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John joined the Heart Foundation in August 2016. Previous to that, he led sector reform for aged care as CEO of Aged and Community Services Australia. He has extensive clinical, management and consulting background in the health sector, including previous careers in law and in cardiac nursing and current academic appointments with the Sydney Nursing School and the University of Technology, Sydney.

You can measure a year in heartbeats. While most of us will count 2019 in months and days and hours, the body has its own way of passing the time. By midnight on December 30, most of Australia’s 25 million or so hearts will have beaten around 40 million times over the year. Some will have stopped; others will have started – and these are the moments few forget. But for most of us, that amazing muscle will have kept on doing its work, largely unremarked.

Here at the Heart Foundation, we have to be a bit more up front in getting our message out. Year’s end is a chance to highlight our own accomplishments in championing the heart and in bringing its astonishing capacities, and its vulnerabilities, to the public’s attention.

So where to start?

Perhaps with the one million or so Australians who have consulted the Heart Foundation’s free Heart Age Calculator since its launch in February. This simple, two-minute online tool helps users with no known history of heart disease to understand their individual risk of heart attack and stroke. Based on answers to a series of quick questions, the tool uses an algorithm to quantify your individual risk by comparing your actual age with your estimated “heart age”.  After that, the Heart Age Calculator may direct you to your GP for a Medicare-funded Heart Health Check.

Yes, I’ll repeat those words: “Medicare-funded”.

On April 1, 2019, after nearly a decade of lobbying by the Heart Foundation, the Federal Government finally assigned a dedicated Medicare Item Number to cover heart health checks at your GP. Australians aged 45 years and over, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders over 30, can now visit their doctor for a standardised check that includes a physical exam, personal history, and – crucially –  strategies to identify, manage and reduce your risk of heart disease. By September, Australian GPs had already claimed the item more than 45,000 times.

The success of the Heart Age Calculator, and the welcome addition of Heart Health Checks to the MBS schedule, can both be traced back to one of the foundation’s biggest initiatives of the year, our multi-award-winning Serial Killer marketing campaign. Run in partnership with News Corp, the campaign directly challenged Australians’ dangerous complacency about our own heart health and that of our loved ones.  With its bold, at times stark, message and images, it emphasised the risks we face (often unwittingly) and exhorted us to care for our hearts through a series of small achievable steps.

Why do we still need campaigns like this? Because, despite a striking jump in Australia’s heart health since the Heart Foundation’s birth in 1959, heart disease still accounts for 12 per cent of Australia’s deaths. Sure, that’s a big improvement on the one in three people heart disease claimed at its peak. But far too many Australians still die from, or have their lives turned upside down by, this preventable and treatable condition. 

And, sadly, we still routinely underestimate the risks, particularly when it comes to ourselves. Around half of us don’t realise heart disease remains the country’s number one single killer. And many remain unaware of the simple steps that can dramatically reduce our chances of death, and – if we survive a heart attack or stroke – increase our chances of recovery. It’s another reminder that, in the fight against heart disease, information is key.

Which brings me to – food. The August launch of the Heart Foundation’s  new national nutrition guidelines fuelled our single biggest day of media coverage for the year. Based on rigorous reviews of the latest clinical evidence, the Heart Foundation revised its advice on meat, eggs and dairy. People without heart disease can eat as many eggs per week as they like and can choose between full-fat and reduced-fat milk, cheese and yogurt. The milk and yogurt should be unflavoured and unsweetened, and portion size still counts. Perhaps most notably, we advised Australians to limit the amount of red meat they eat to 350 grams per week and to try more tofu, beans, chickpeas and lentils. That information and associated media coverage reached close to 20 million people.

Likewise, our ongoing focus on the tremendous health benefits of walking continued to pay off, with 60,000 Australians signed up to the Heart Foundation Walking programs – and that was before the launch of November’s Walk Away from a Killer campaign.

Along the way, the Heart Foundation has continued to pour millions into heart health research, with $50 million pledged over the next three years to further our understanding of areas such as the impact on long term heart health of embryonic stem cells, gut microbes and childhood obesity.

While all of this has been happening, the Heart Foundation has quietly bedded in the new organisational structure that last year united nine separate state and territory bodies into one national organisation. It’s been a big effort, involving many heads and many hearts, but we are confident the changes have set us up for the decade to come – funding lifesaving research and protecting the hearts of the 30 million or so Australians projected to be here in 2030.

That’s a lot of heartbeats.