The Asian Health Initiative

Bringing health equity to the Eastside.

Over the past few decades, researchers have come to fully understand that medicine isn’t a one-size-fits-all system. What applies to one group doesn’t necessarily apply to another.

Take heart attack symptoms, for instance. The phrases “chest pain” or “chest pressure” probably come to mind. While those associations with symptoms are correct, they don’t paint a full picture. The National Institutes of Health, for instance, report that while women sometimes feel chest pain and pressure, they’re also more likely than men to feel other heart-attack symptoms, like shortness of breath or dizziness.

So, one size doesn’t fit all with medicine and gender. And the same is true for people of different ethnicities.

“There are big deficiencies in our ability to accurately assess cardiac risk for everyone,” says Eugene Yang, M.D., M.S., FACC, UW associate professor of medicine in the Division of Cardiology. “We can’t accurately predict the risk of a Korean-American or a Chinese-American having a heart attack.”

As a preventative cardiologist, Yang’s primary interest lies in managing risk factors — such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels — that lead to heart disease. And while a lot of work has been done on the differences between Blacks and Whites, the data on Asians is nowhere near as robust.

“The reason is pretty obvious, I think,” Yang says. “There aren’t enough Asians enrolling in clinical trials and research studies, which limits our ability to refine our treatment recommendations or risk stratification tools in this population.”

Yang would like to change this scenario — to make healthcare more equitable by making it more specific.

As a physician and as an active member of the Korean-American community, Yang has seen how language and cultural barriers can get in the way of high-quality care and access to clinical trials. And as director of the UW Medicine Eastside Specialty Center, Yang also has a front-row seat to the many evolving, complex healthcare needs on the Eastside — an area encompassing many Puget Sound communities, including Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island and Issaquah.

“UW Medicine is a safety net for many people who live on the Eastside, including Persians, Russians, Chinese and Koreans. From a clinical standpoint, we take care of a very eclectic, diverse population,” says Yang.

Yang created the Asian Health Initiative specifically to help optimize care for Asians in his community, including the many diverse subgroups within that category. It’s a group that’s getting ever larger, with a greater need for good healthcare.

“The Asian-American community is the one of the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. and on the Eastside,” says Yang. “It makes sense that the Eastside Specialty Center becomes the epicenter for starting a program like this.”

Yang has high hopes for the initiative, including educating local Asian Americans about diseases that impact their communities at high rates and increasing participation in research.

But his ambitions don’t stop there. He also hopes that the initiative’s work will allow him to partner with researchers in Asia who can provide insights on how to enroll patients in clinical trials.

Carl and Renée Behnke — longtime friends of UW Medicine who live on the Eastside — know that medicine must keep up with changing demographics. And, having met Yang and been inspired by his commitment, they decided to create the Carl and Renée Behnke Endowed Professorship for Asian Health, a position recently bestowed on him by the University of Washington. The Behnke Professorship will support the faculty leader of the Asian Health Initiative, allowing Dr. Yang to dedicate time to research activities.

“The Asian Health Initiative is about people coming together to address the needs of a changing community,” says Renée Behnke. “And we’ve seen firsthand how people like Dr. Yang can make a difference for the Asian community and for the community at large.”

For Carl Behnke, giving is a matter of principle.

“I was raised in a family that believed in supporting the community we live in and giving back — not only with finances but also with time and leadership,” he says.

ACCELERATE CARE

With a gift to the Asian Health Studies Initiative Fund.

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