Johns Hopkins Magazine -- April 2000
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APRIL 2000


As president of the American Heart Association, Martha Hill was not afraid to shake things up.
Opening photo:
Hill: focusing on behavior.

Photo by Keith Weller
APRIL 2000
Pioneers of Advocacy

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The Heart of the Matter
By Sue De Pasquale

Soon after Martha Hill assumed the presidency of the American Heart Association in 1997, she began prodding many of the association's doctors and scientists to get personally involved in fundraising. Start a golf tournament, she said, or organize a 5K run.

Many warmed to the idea quickly. For years they'd been receiving money from the AHA for their cardiac research; it seemed reasonable to help raise it as well. But some seemed taken aback. Who was this woman, the first non-physican president in the AHA's 74-year history, to make such a suggestion? Their response: "You know, I'm very busy..."

"I would have to bite my tongue not to say, 'You're busy?!'" says Hill today, in her office at Hopkins's School of Nursing, where she is director of the Nursing Research Institute. "What about the chairman of the bank, or the senior partner in the law firm?"--community leaders who traditionally have led fundraising efforts. "These people are busy, too!"

Clearly, Martha Hill (Nursing '66, PhD '86) is not a woman to mince words, and she's not afraid to shake things up. That's exactly what she did when she assumed leadership of the 30,000-member AHA. Her goal: to broaden the association's science agenda beyond the traditional anatomy and physiology of heart disease. Given her expertise in community health (she holds a PhD in behavioral sciences from Public Health and has done important studies showing how personalized care can control hypertension in urban black men), the "huge paradigm shift" she called for was not entirely unexpected.

For many years, Hill says, the AHA's research efforts had focused on the basic sciences and on moving resultant advances from the lab bench to the bedside--the hospital bedside, that is.

The problem, as Hill points out, is that "patients don't live in the 'cath' lab." The most innovative heart drugs in the world won't work if people don't take them, or if doctors don't prescribe them, she notes. And expensive, high-tech surgical procedures could be avoided completely if more Americans could take simple steps to control their obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

"We need to be taking care of the social and behavioral aspects of people," says Hill, "as well as the basic research." That credo became the hallmark of her one-year term as president. Among other things, she helped pave the way for an annual conference on patient care and outcomes research. And she drew mass media attention to the role physicians and healthcare systems can play in helping patients better comply with their treatment plans.

Hill today remains active in the AHA, while at Hopkins she continues overseeing and doing research aimed at effecting heart-healthy behavior. Says Hill simply, "I can't think of anything I'd rather do."