June 25, 1999

VUMC’s Robertson to helm American Heart Association

VUMC's Robertson to helm American Heart Association


Dr. Rose Robertson, here with patient Kristin Baumgart, is ready to lead the American Heart Association. (photo by Donna Jones Bailey)

Dr. Rose M. Robertson, Professor of Medicine, will be named president-elect of the American Heart Association during its National Delegate Assembly today in Dallas.

She is the first Vanderbilt physician ever to be elected to the post.

Robertson first began volunteering more than 20 years ago for the AHA – a national health association with more than four million lay volunteers and 30,000 physicians and scientists.

"As a cardiologist, it's a natural fit to want work for the AHA, with its mission of reducing disability and death from cardiovascular diseases and stroke," she said. "The involvement gave me a way to interact with and give something back to the community.

"We do a lot of preventive cardiology in our practices, but prevention really begins with the people we don't see, the people who are healthy now, or who at least think they are. The AHA gives us a way to really impact the American public's health practices to prevent heart disease."

Her work with the AHA has taken her from the local and state levels of volunteerism to the national tier. Her upcoming post, a three-year commitment, will probably require 50-60 days a year off campus for the first two years.

"The opportunity to be president of this incredible organization is overwhelming and humbling," Robertson admits. "I'm still getting used to the idea. My colleagues here (at Vanderbilt) have been very enthusiastic, even though it will certainly impact the time I spend in Nashville for the next several years.

"No one from Vanderbilt has ever served before, so they all think it's not only good for me but also good for Vanderbilt."

As president-elect, Robertson did not have to prepare an agenda for the next three years. As a matter of fact, she served on the committee responsible for mapping out the strategic plans for the AHA for the 21st century. One of her top priorities over the next three years includes lobbying for increased support for the next generation of cardiovascular physician scientists/investigators.

"I think people need to know how difficult it is currently to attract young people into careers in cardiovascular science and medicine, particularly into academic careers. I want to make sure that the American public understands that if we don't train these young scientists, there will be no one to replace me and my colleagues, particularly those interested in clinical and patient-oriented research."

Five years ago, while chairing the committee that organizes the AHA's annual scientific sessions, the largest meeting in the world devoted to the latest advances in cardiovascular disease and stroke, Robertson noted that the number of abstract submissions from the United States was down while those from other countries was rapidly increasing. In the United States, growth in the sciences has not kept pace with the rest of the world, according to Robertson. As a matter of fact, she said, the number of young investigators here fell significantly, as research careers looked more and more risky.

"The opportunities now are really unparalleled, and we need to find ways to be sure we have the faculty in this country to take advantage of them. Wherever science is done is good for science," Robertson said. "But it is really disappointing for the U.S. to begin to fall behind, since for so many years we have been considered the world leaders in science."

Robertson's other areas of interest include ensuring that the AHA is placing an emphasis on educating women about the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease as well as carrying out its mission of fighting stroke. The harsh reality that cardiovascular diseases are the No. 1 killers of both men and women has propelled many cardiologists, especially Robertson, to help women recognize the seriousness of the diseases.

Seeking to place higher visibility on the AHA's long-standing focus on educating the public and practitioners about stroke is one that is particularly meaningful to Robertson. While she was serving on the Stroke Task Force for the AHA in 1996, her mother, a retired physician and the first woman physician to practice in Detroit, died of a stroke. AHA statistics show that when considered separately from other cardiovascular disease, stroke ranks as the third leading cause of death, behind diseases of the heart and cancer.

"There have been important advances in treatment that really make a difference," she said. "It's more important than ever that we let people know that we can make a difference if they come to the hospital soon enough. I grew up watching my mother be a wonderful doctor for her patients. I hope I can use her ability to communicate to help educate the public about this."

Although Robertson said her new "job," albeit volunteer, will keep her schedule filled to capacity, it is one she gladly accepts.

"I am really honored," she said. "What makes this organization so effective is the combination of spectacular people who bring all their talents to the table. I want to make sure that I represent all of these people well and do all I can to help their work succeed.

"The American Heart Association is tremendously respected by the public at large. It's important that the name continues to be a name the public knows it can turn to for the most accurate and easy-to-use cardiovascular health information."

Robertson, a 1970 graduate of Harvard Medical School, completed her residency in Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in 1972. After her postdoctoral fellowship in cardiovascular medicine at Johns Hopkins in 1975, she joined Vanderbilt as an Assistant Professor of Medicine. She is a member of the American Society for Clinical Investigation, has been Professor of Medicine since 1989 and Vice Chair for Academic Affairs, Department of Medicine, since 1995.

Robertson will also receive the AHA's Award of Meritorious Achievement during the National Delegate Assembly this weekend.