Dr. Todd C. Villines, MD. is Fellowship Program Director and Director of Cardiovascular Research at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and President-Elect of the American Heart Association (AHA), Greater Washington Region Board of Directors – a group which through research and cardiac care seeks to minimize death and disability caused by stroke and cardiovascular disease.
The military cardiologist opened up to WashingtonExec in a recent interview about the upcoming Greater Washington Region DC Heart Ball.
The black-tie event, set to take place Feb 22, brings together physicians and community, health care and corporate leaders to celebrate life and the organization’s mission to prevent cardiovascular disease – an ailment which is the most common cause of death among women and among those in uniform.
Villines, who graduated in 1999 from the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, today specializes in cardiovascular disease, echocardiography, cardiac CT, heart failure, management of permanent pacemakers and cardiac catheterization among other specialties.
He used his expertise to tell us about the differences between being a military and a civilian physician and told us his largest goals as President-Elect of the AHA Greater Washington Region Board of Directors- to promote preventative over diagnostic care.
WashingtonExec: As the incoming President of the American Heart Association Greater Washington Regional Board of Directors, what do you hope to achieve in your tenure?
Dr. Todd Villines: I think one of the biggest areas of interest of mine — both academically and as a goal as the incoming President — is to foster the shift of the American Heart Association towards a really strong preventative stance. This is really in line with the American Heart Association’s 2020 Impact Goal, which is to reduce morbidity and mortality from cardiovascular disease by 20 percent by 2020 and to look at metrics to try to improve the health of Americans by at least 20 percent.
WashingtonExec: How has technology advanced cardiovascular care since you began practicing?
Dr. Todd Villines: It’s just been tremendous. The American Heart Association has been a huge force in the area of cardiovascular research. They fund millions of dollars within the Greater Washington region towards research and a lot of these advances simply would not be possible without their support. When people look at organizations to support the mission of the American Heart Association the advances are in large part supported by the donations to the Association. In particular I think a lot of people take it for granted that we have been helping –just in the last 10 years — to advance research cardio pulmonary resuscitation, or CPR in a way that it had not advanced in a field where there had not been much pharmaceutical funding.
Similar to that would be the changes to the Advanced Cardiac Life Support System and how we treat patients who are suffering from heart attacks. We’ve learned through research in the last 7 or 8 years that some of the drugs that we use are certainly not as effective as we thought they were so naturally that has led to advancements and changes. That, to me, is exciting because more people are surviving and thriving and going on to do quite well.
There have also been a lot of technological advances that have to do with the type of devices that we use, like the implantable cardiac defibrillators – that science has evolved tremendously. When I started practicing that was something that was not even being done. Now how we treat people who have had heart failure or prior heart attacks is much more advanced. Another example is the technology related to coronary stenting. The guidelines on prevention – I had mentioned earlier have evolved tremendously and I think we have a better idea of how we should be living healthy lifestyles and treating certain risk factors like cholesterol and blood pressure.
WashingtonExec: Shifting to the 2014 DC Heart Ball, what can attendees expect to find at the event?
Dr. Todd Villines: I’m a cardiologist in the military so it is always exciting for me to see the Heart Heroes campaign. That program is something that was started 5 years ago and it really sheds light on the important work that the military cardiologists do. Getting to see the 2014 honorees and hear their stories and learning about their careers and what they are continuing to do in the area of heart disease is always great, interesting and impactful. Of course, the Heart Ball is just an incredible event in general. There are fantastic silent and live auctions. There is a great dinner and a lot of dancing. Heart After Dark is a fun “after party” for a lot of the younger folks. There is also a Faces of Heart program which always humbles me, as a provider, to go back and see survivors; to hear the survivors’ stories about their battle with heart disease and how they have overcome that and how some of the research that I just spoke about has significantly impacted their lives and in many cases has helped them stay alive and continue to do well.
WashingtonExec: Who can attend the Heart Ball and how can others get involved?
Dr. Todd Villines: It’s really anyone – you can go to www.dcheartball.com and people can certainly buy tickets. The American Heart Association is constantly looking for partners, so if there are companies or organizations that are looking for a place to become sponsors they can go online and read about the mission of the organization, what the Heart Ball stands.
”I really urge the Greater Washington Region to do so. If you think about it, there is virtually no one in this region that has not been affected by heart disease. It’s something that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough attention and it’s the largest cause of death in the United States – far and away above that of cancer or other causes.”
For many companies in the area this is an event they can attend and sponsor to show their support of the cause of the American Heart Association. The website is great and we would certainly like to hear from anyone if they want to get involved. I really urge the Greater Washington Region to do so. If you think about it, there is virtually no one in this region that has not been affected by heart disease. It’s something that, in my opinion, doesn’t get enough attention and it’s the largest cause of death in the United States – far and away above that of cancer or other causes. We talk a lot more about those things than heart disease which is unfortunate. We have a long ways to go despite the advances. Anyone who is interested in the American Heart Association can go online, signup and give us a call. It’s not just the one night. If people want to get involved with that particular event, there is a lot going on all year round.
WashingtonExec: Could you elaborate on the Heart Heroes Program – when it started, how it started and how it thanks military personnel for their service?
Dr. Todd Villines: This is the fifth year it has run and fortunately I was honored its first year. I was tremendously taken by the offer to thank military physicians for what they do. One of my own personal plights, if you will, is that when you look at military healthcare, the thing that attracts most of the press is trauma and conflicts abroad, and that is appropriately so. I think what, perhaps, doesn’t get mentioned enough is the burden of cardiovascular disease, even within our own military. For example, the most common cause of death for people wearing a uniform is cardiovascular disease.
”The Heart Heroes Program has given us a chance to highlight many of those providers in the DC and Greater Washington Region who are in the military, who spend their careers doing cardiovascular prevention and really highlights for others what they do.”
There is a tremendous amount of prevention and treatment that goes on in military medicine and as a military cardiologist and this is a chance to highlight the work that we are doing in our own military to keep our fighting force fit, effective and do long term prevention. Certainly in the military healthcare system, this is a system where we care for individuals throughout their military career so we are treating them while they are on active duty but we are also caring for them into retirement. Prevention is something that is economically better for our system. It’s a secondary benefit of focusing on prevention. The Heart Heroes Program has given us a chance to highlight many of those providers in the DC and Greater Washington Region who are in the military, who spend their careers doing cardiovascular prevention and really highlights for others what they do. A lot of times people don’t realize what people are doing and where they are at with some really interesting careers that people have had within the military. It’s been really just an amazing program and one of the greatest parts of the evening, just hearing these stories that many folks may not be aware of.
WashingtonExec: How would you differentiate the experience of being a military physician to being a civilian physician?
Dr. Todd Villines: In many ways from a physician’s standpoint it is very similar in the one sense that our military physicians are all board certified, they’ve gone through the same training programs that any other physician would go through. From a professional standpoint and a training standpoint they are very similarly trained and capable. One of the biggest differences is the practice setting. Practicing in the military there is some degree of sacrifice related to the fact that the military can send you where they need you at any given time, you have to be ready to deploy at any moment. The mission is of course focused on not just your day-to-day practices but also those that are returning from combat or caring for those in harm’s way. For example, in my own experience I’ve deployed twice; once to Iraq and once to Afghanistan and certainly what is unique among military physicians is the call to deploy and practice your skills sometimes in very austere environments. That’s the other unique feature – sometimes we have to learn to practice in somewhat unique settings, doing resuscitation in Afghanistan, caring for trauma victims, caring for myocardial infarctions victims, and sometimes in unfriendly circumstances, is something that we have had to train for and do. It is a real pleasure to do it. I would say that the practice setting and circumstances are quite different but the care that you give is exactly the same. We follow the exact same American Heart Association guidelines that if you had a heart attack in our hospital and went down the street you would get the exact same care. The care is exactly the same and some of the best in the world.
WashingtonExec: If there were only one thing people should be doing in order to prevent heart disease, if you could give one piece of advice – what would it be?
Dr. Todd Villines: To pick one thing is hard! It is really how we live our lives and I think in America the biggest thing is fitness. I think if we as Americans could improve our level of fitness by doing regular exercise . . . I say that if you could do one thing – exercise impacts so many other risk factors. For example, walking every day or doing regular aerobic exercise improves blood pressure, it helps cholesterol levels, it improves sleep, and it helps people reduce weight and obesity. Without exercise, if you treat your blood pressure with medication and you treat all of these other things with medications you are only partially treating the problem.
The last thing that I might add – and is one of my pleas — is to bring awareness to the impressive burden of cardiovascular disease across the country. Particularly for women it is the most common cause of death. It remains so by far . . . Cardiovascular disease affects more women than men. I think highlighting that and the importance of prevention in addition to the overall burden of heart disease. We’ve got a long way to go. Despite all of the advances that I’ve mentioned and the impact that these advances have had, the research dollars these days, particularly in the current budget era from federally funded research, have dropped significantly. I think the American Heart Association has a huge mission in that area to continue the research and development so that we can continue these advances. There is a huge fear that that momentum might slow down given some of the budget constraints in the government. I think there is more of an impetus on funding research through giving and other ways. I think the American Heart Association has been the organization to do that.