Sports biz: Playing with heart
In his quest to keep patients away from the operating room, Denver physician Jeffrey Boone brings the want-to of a determined linebacker. Why shouldn’t he? It’s the position he played in high school in Garden City, Kan., in the 1970s, and its requisites – shed blockers, knock down passes, flatten running backs – are all about refusing to yield to obstacle.
That’s what Boone, a onetime fitness director-turned-doctor, is doing from an office near Denver’s Porter Adventist Hospital. He’s refusing to surrender to the ravages of the heart.
At 57, Boone is an exuberant ex-jock who still plays pickup basketball whenever he can sneak away from the office on Fridays. Framed jerseys and posters of his favorite pro athletes – Bart Starr, Julius Erving – decorate the hallway walls at his practice, Boone Heart Institute.
In the field of heart disease, Boone has scouted the opposition thoroughly. There are four ways the heart dies young, he explains, ticking off the enemies like names printed on the back of a jersey. Plaque. Blood clots. Valve problems. Strokes. Basically, he wants to throw all of them for a loss.
“Our goal is to figure out how to wipe out heart disease,” he says. “Not to fix it. To wipe it out.”
Boone’s specialty, honed during a residency in Portland, Ore., is internal medicine. His mission isn’t to repair broken hearts, but to prevent them from getting that way in the first place. The tools include diagnostic screening approaches that take a closer look at indicators of cardiovascular health than basic blood pressure and cholesterol checks.
Boone’s practice specializes in detailed ultrasound and CT scans that peer inside your arteries. Actually, yours and those of your work colleagues: The idea is to introduce economic scale to an expensive process by conducting on-site screenings for employees and their employers, a growing number of which have figured out that heart attacks among valued and skilled workers tend to be bad for the bottom line.
By negotiating with technology providers and bringing volume to the process, Boone has been able to reduce the typical cost of a comprehensive screening to several hundred dollars per person from several thousand dollars. Last month, Boone was preparing to head to southwest New Mexico, where an oil refinery company was offering screenings for its managers and laborers in an area where heart disease is especially prevalent.
But Boone knows achieving the wider goal of eradicating heart disease requires more powerful ways to raise awareness, particularly among men who tend to neglect (or wish away) medical tests at large. So he has enlisted an especially influential segment of the population: NFL players. Boone Heart Institute is one of two practices that work with the NFL, its players union and a player alumni group to offer heart screenings to retired players.
Combined, they screen close to 500 ex-players annually in a program that grew from work Boone originally did with former Denver Broncos players. Consistently, Boone finds close to 25 percent of former NFL players exhibit signs of heart disease, an affliction shared by about 27 million other Americans. Some, like former Eagles defensive end Reggie White, have died because of it. Boone doesn’t blame the game of football for taxing the body so much as a common trait of many players: They’re big.
“Big men die young,” Boone says. “It’s not good to be 6 foot 5 and 300 pounds, whether you’re a former football player, a doctor or a lawyer.” But he’s quick to add anybody can be at risk – even individuals who appear to be in excellent health.
The good news is that with early detection, heart disease can be treated, and cardiovascular health improved, before traumatic events occur. That’s the message Boone is determined to convey, and he’s relying on his association with ex-NFL players and other sports teams – Boone does regular work for Colorado Rockies players and front-office employees – to help spread it.
“I felt the prevention of heart disease needed some star power,” he says. “The NFL opens doors. It gets people’s attention.” And that, says Boone, can save lives. Even for people who never strap on shoulder pads. .