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HealthPartners Institute partners with the Somali community to lower and learn more about their heart disease risk

Like many other immigrant groups, Somalis’ risk for heart disease has risen since moving to Minnesota – so our researchers have set out to help reverse that


By Bjorn Westgard, MD
February 14, 2018

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Minnesota is home to the biggest group of Somali immigrants in the United States. As of 2015, there were at least 31,400 living around the state – and mostly in the Twin Cities. Yet we have realized that the medical community knows very little about their health and well-being needs.

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men and women in our country as a whole. Smoking and obesity increase a person’s risk for it. And so do high blood pressure, high blood sugar and high cholesterol. But are these also top concerns for the Somali community? Or are there other more pressing issues that doctors should be talking to patients about?

HealthPartners wants to improve public health across the board. But to do that, we need to thoroughly understand the health of the communities we serve.

This is why we are working to learn more about the health and well-being of our Somali neighbors.

We got funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct a 5-year study on heart disease risks among Somalis. The most important partners for this study are the people in that community. We’re connected with Somali doctors and nurses. And we meet regularly with religious and community leaders to keep them informed and involved in the research they have helped us shape.

Our team also includes partners from Hennepin County Medical Center, Wellshare International, Aurora Healthcare and the East African Health Project. Some of these partners had done a study on Somali immigrants in 2001. But at that time, the community was much smaller. It was discovered then that many Somalis knew more about their health and health care than a lot of people in the United States. And, the rates of obesity, smoking and high cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar were all lower in their community than in the general U.S. population, too.

Our early research shows that Somalis are now at higher risk for heart disease than they were in 2001.

Our Somali partners have helped us design and carry out our current study. They helped us get in touch and build trust with 1,150 members of their community. And they taught us how to survey them in a way that works for their culture.

On the plus side, the survey has shown us that the percentage of Somalis who are smokers has not increased since 2001. And it’s shown us that even more people in the community have health insurance than they did then. But unfortunately, we have also found that more people are now overweight. And we have found that high blood sugar, high blood pressure and high cholesterol rates have increased, too.

These adverse trends in health are not unique to Somalis. We see it happen to many immigrant groups after they spend some time living in the United States. There is more unhealthy food here. People are less active and are often less social as well. All of these things lead to them gaining weight. Their cholesterol goes up. Some get diabetes. And some get heart disease.

We are now working with the Somali community to understand and present our results. And we are collaborating on ways to start making positive change.

“This study is very important to know what is going on with the health of Somali people in Minnesota,” one community member said. “But it must also lead to actions to make our community’s health better.”

That’s why we will now look at how social networks and relationships affect the health of this particular community. Maybe messages promoting healthy diet and exercise will only be effective if they come from certain places or leaders. Or perhaps for Somalis, certain forms of exercise resonate better than others. We want to find a way to reverse the effect the U.S. environment has had on the health of this community. And we want to help lower their heart disease risks. That means we need to come up with new ideas and solutions that work for them.

About Bjorn Westgard, MD

Dr. Bjorn Westgard is an emergency physician at Regions Hospital and a research investigator at HealthPartners Institute. He also works at Hennepin County Medical Center as a hyperbaric physician. Dr. Westgard serves a diverse population of patients in the Emergency Room at Regions Hospital, which he finds to be very rewarding. He says he is inspired by the culture and colleagues at Regions every day, and is honored to be able to conduct research that may help his patients in their neighborhoods. Dr. Westgard is married with two teenage children. When he’s not working, he likes to gather with friends and family to sail, ski, listen to music and dance.

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