Over 18,000 patients in Hawai‘i are hospitalized annually from cardiovascular disease; heart disease is responsible for three out of every ten deaths in the state— about 3,000 deaths annually; cardiovascular disease is also responsible for 55% of all deaths in Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities.
Third-year student Anson Lee (JABSOM MD 2025 candidate)'s research and outreach programs have deepened the community’s understanding of disease prevention and care. For his efforts in facilitating community-wide learning, Lee has received both the prestigious Excellence in Public Health award and recognition from the United States Public Health Service as the award recipient who best embodies the service’s mission of protecting, promoting, and advancing the health and safety of the nation.
One factor behind Lee’s projects stemmed from the loss of his grandfather, but ultimately, however, it was his passion to raise awareness for cardiovascular disease and his desire to reduce inequities in cardiovascular health that pushed Lee to take action.
“Not a lot of the mainland people are looking into [cardiovascular issues within Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities] since their databases don’t have NHPI populations. Of course, Hawaii will since they have large populations,” said Lee. “Traditionally, these groups aren’t looked at individually; they are grouped. It is a huge gap, and I would like to do more projects [regarding this issue], especially related to cardiology and heart health.”
More than anything, Lee recognizes the significance of educating Hawai‘i about heart health.
“Heart disease is the number one killer worldwide, especially in Hawai‘i,” Lee said. “Once I got to med school, I realized how much could be and should be done for cardiovascular disease. That’s what I decided to focus my efforts on.”
Lee first co-founded Project Heal, Exercise, and Rescue Together (HEART) as a way to both educate and reach out to the public schools on Oahu, noting that collaboration with the greater community was at the very heart of Project HEART.
“We wanted to do high schoolers because [about 40] states have CPR certification as a graduation requirement. Hawai‘i is not one of those states,” Lee said. “I came from a private school; we were required to be taught CPR. Maybe not every school will have that since not every public school will have funding.”
“These are kids who are probably going on to the next step of their lives. If they want to go into medicine or any other healthcare-related professions, it would be nice to reach them at this stage where they can have med students interact with them.”
Lee’s other organization, Check Your Pressure, was meant to give back to another vulnerable population— Chinatown residents who recently immigrated to Hawai‘i.
“In Chinatown, you’re going to have a lot of the older Chinese population; they’ll have better access to healthcare in comparison to the newer immigrants,” said Lee. “The newer population may not be as used to the U.S. healthcare system, or may not speak English well. They may be at risk for hypertension, which they may not aware of.”
Check Your Pressure allows Chinatown residents to receive preliminary heart health screenings. Cardiologists provided basic free healthcare services such as blood pressure and BMI tests.
“We just want to give them a heads up. We can’t diagnose them with anything from one blood check, but maybe we can say ‘hey, maybe see a healthcare provider because this is a bit high.’”
Check Your Pressure also emphasizes cultural competency by ensuring that those needing more care are able to get what they need,The program provides residents with informative cards written in Chinese.
“Cultural competency and [acknowledging] different backgrounds comes into play here in medicine when you’re trying to talk to different people,” said Lee. “Being able to talk in Chinese was also handy, as I could talk to different patients.”
Lee is continuing to endeavor in research and community outreach, and is looking forward to what the future holds for him.
”As we expand Project HEART, we’re hoping to gain a permanent foothold in the state. We are working with JABSOM and some other organizations to create a coalition that could actually implement larger changes [such as] CPR knowledge advancement statewide. [In addition], Project HEART will be passed down to a couple of second years who will continue it.”