NHLBI staff members pose with Chi Eta Phi leadership.
NHLBI, nursing sorority team up to fight heart disease in women

Heart Month outreach saw more than 1,000 blood pressure screenings at churches

Priscilla Murphy remembers well those days back in 2005 when her professional nursing sorority first teamed up with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to spread the word about heart disease and women. The idea was use the medical skill and reach of Chi Eta Phi’s army of registered nurses to educate women where they spent much of their time.

And on a Sunday morning, for many women, that was church.

“At first, only a handful of churches were involved,” recalls Murphy, R.N., who is first vice-president of the Washington, D.C.-based organization. But with a little persistence—and a lot of hard work—things changed. “We’ve seen the outreach grow by leaps and bounds, especially in the last six years,” says Murphy. And that matters, she notes, given that heart disease is now the leading cause of death for women in the United States.

Chi Eta Phi members display NHLBI literature
Chi Eta Phi nursing sorority members display NHLBI’s Heart Truth literature at information table at Faith Baptist Church Cathedral in Hempstead, N.Y. Pictured are Karen Lockworth (left), who gave a presentation about heart health to the congregation, and Carla Phillips.
Recently, the 8,000-member sorority and the NHLBI met to renew and strengthen their partnership, with a focus on reducing the burden of heart disease in women. The sorority will continue working with The Heart Truth®, NHLBI’s national education program that raises awareness about women’s risk for heart disease. And the group’s many registered and student nurses will continue their critical foot-soldier mission: visiting local churches throughout the country to conduct blood pressure screenings, distribute literature about heart disease, and perform risk assessments for stroke. 

Last year, about 40 churches shared and promoted the activities of The Heart Truth® outreach campaign, Murphy says. This year, that number more than doubled—to 98 churches. During American Heart Month in February, the sorority conducted more than 1,000 blood pressure screenings at churches and distributed about 12,400 pieces of literature about heart disease.

Murphy credits the outreach growth at churches, in part, to a stronger collaboration between Chi Eta Phi and NHLBI and a closer working relationship between the sorority and the local pastors and health ministries. In addition to wider participation, the project also has been energized by practical, up-to-date information about women and heart disease. This year, for example, NHLBI’s theme for the American Heart Month campaign was “Small Changes for the Heart". It encouraged women to take manageable small steps to protect their heart, such as using smaller plates to limit portion sizes at meals, taking walks at work instead of taking coffee breaks, and making heart-healthy choices (such as low sodium and low calorie) from restaurant menus, among others.

In addition to enlisting the services of Chi Eta Phi at churches during Heart Month, The Heart Truth® campaign continues to reach out to the public year-round through social media, including TwitterFacebook, and Pinterest . Interactive videos are also available that can be shown to a variety of audiences to educate viewers about the importance of making healthy choices for their heart. Examples include the videos “Next Episode or Go to Bed?” and “Order Takeout or Eat Healthy.”

This health information has the potential to be life-changing, particularly among African-American women, who are disproportionately affected by heart disease. Only 36 percent of African-American women know that heart disease is their greatest health risk, and barely half know the signs, which can differ between women and men. Many men experience chest pain, for example, but some women with heart disease have no symptoms at all.

Screenings conducted by Chi Eta Phi nursing sorority can make a difference. The nurses educate people about reducing blood pressure and follow up to ensure they have taken additional steps to prevent or treat heart disease, like talking to a doctor about their health.

“The NHLBI is enthusiastic about this national partnership because it engages Chi Eta Phi chapters across the country in activities that fight heart disease not just during February, but throughout the year,” says Lenora Johnson, DrPH, director of NHLBI’s Office of Science, Policy, Engagement, Education, and Communications. “Communities are the team members that have the opportunity to change the heart disease game, and working together we can carry out our full court press toward healthier lives.”

The Heart Truth® campaign also encourages women to embrace broader lifestyle changes that lower their heart disease risk: stop smoking, follow a healthy diet, and become more physically active. And it encourages action now, not later—for good reason. Although heart disease deaths have decreased 70 percent in the last 50 years, it remains the leading cause of death nationwide.

“As nurses, we are so honored to have NHLBI be a part of this health outreach”, Murphy says. “Our partnership is helping us provide fresh health information to women so they can live longer, more productive lives.”

The NHLBI invites women to continue their educational journey about heart health throughout the year by visiting the NHLBI and  The Heart Truth® online. In addition to these resources, please see related YouTube video: “The Power of Community with NHLBI and Woman’s Day”