Physician Spotlight: A Heart for Healing
By MELANIE KILGORE-HILL
Kristen Kerr Committed to Education, Better Cardiac Outcomes
In the United States, one in four women die from heart disease. Those are odds TriStar Summit Medical Center cardiologist Kristen Kerr, MD, hopes to change.
Originally from Southern Alabama, Kerr said the greatest influence in her decision to pursue medicine was her father, a primary care physician in their small hometown of Andalusia. "My first taste of medicine was growing up and seeing those relationships my dad had with his patients," she said. "You learn to appreciate that, especially in a small town like ours."
Kerr received her undergraduate degree from Birmingham-Southern College and remained in the city to receive her medical degree and complete her internship, residency and fellowship at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. As a med student, Kerr's first rotation was the cardiac care unit, where she found she could have a tremendous impact in patients' lives.
"These patients were recovering from heart attacks, and I'd see them the next day on rounds and they were so grateful for advice and support after such a huge life event," she said. "I was able to counsel them on smoking cessation, diet and exercise, and they were willing to listen."
Kerr made the move to Nashville in September 2019, joining the staff at Centennial Heart at TriStar Summit Medical Center. She said the hospital - and city - provide a perfect work-life balance while still preserving a taste of the South.
Kerr practices general, non-invasive cardiology with a focus on heart disease prevention, particularly among women. "Women's heart health has gained some traction thanks to the (American Heart Association's) 'Wear Red for Women' campaign, but I still don't think enough people are aware that heart disease is the number one cause of death for women," Kerr said. "Women don't present like men, and I've seen several who've had atypical symptoms for a long time and just taken aspirin hoping it would get better. If you have symptoms that concern you enough to take aspirin, you need to talk to someone."
Women are often so busy caring for others that they ignore symptoms, which can be exacerbated by menopause and hormonal changes that occur later in life. According to the AHA, a decline in the natural hormone estrogen may be a factor in heart disease increase among post-menopausal women. That's because estrogen is believed to have a positive effect on the inner layer of artery wall, helping to keep blood vessels flexible. Menopause also can drive up blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, putting older women in the same (or higher) risk bracket as men.
When discussing preventative care and lifestyle changes, Kerr said she learned quickly that recommendations aren't one-size-fits-all. "You really have to find the strategy that the patient is going to respond best with, and that will encourage compliance," said Kerr.
She has found apps for weight loss, exercise and smoking cessation highly successful among patients who like to visually track their progress. "I've had a great response from patients using these apps," she said. "Others need me to tell them exactly what to eat and how to exercise. There are different strategies for different people, but you have to figure out how to get them on board with those small changes, from walking once a day to moving more at work. Little things add up."
Those small steps include dietary changes, and Kerr said it's important to realize that not every patient will adhere to the same menu. "The best diet is the one you can stick to," she advised. "Find the least processed and most natural source of foods possible and avoid saturated fats."
A certified yoga instructor, Kerr also speaks to patients about mindfulness and incorporates those practices into her own busy life.
She's also seeing a high volume of patients with atrial fibrillation and said the diagnosis is becoming much more common among an aging baby boomer population affected by co-morbidities such as high blood pressure and diabetes. "Patients are living longer, and I'm often reminding them that AFib needs to be taken seriously since it dramatically increases the risk of stroke," Kerr said. "A lot of times AFib patients don't have symptoms so they underestimate that risk, so I try to get that message out every day and let them know there are small steps they can take."