Editor’s Note: This story was updated March 15, 2018 to include CORRECTED information about Christine Norton’s involvement in research, which compared clinic-based care for high blood pressure to telehealth-based care.  

Christine Norton has never settled for easy answers. As a high school English teacher, she pushed her students to dig deeper into the literature, never accepting the obvious.

But after being diagnosed with breast cancer, high blood pressure and heart failure, her own search for answers became even more personal – and it has motivated her to spend the last 20 years advocating for patient-centered and evidence-based research.

“It’s important that people affected by these diseases should be involved at every level, and have a seat at the table,” she said.

On Wednesday, she again tried to make sure of just that. She shared both her personal experiences as a patient and as an advocate during a Capitol Hill briefing about a new research initiative between the American Heart Association and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.

Christine Norton

She has been a patient co-investigator for the initiative for the past two years, working to understand the best treatments for patients with uncontrolled high blood pressure by comparing clinic-based care with telehealth-based care.

Norton has worked alongside patient organizations, such as PCORI and the National Breast Cancer Coalition for two decades, calling for better funded research that helps patients and healthcare providers make better-informed decisions.

While the term evidence-based research might not be common for many, this medical research theory has gained popularity over the last several years.

First appearing in the American College of Physicians Journal Club in 1991, evidence-based research strategies pair the best available evidence with a doctor’s expertise and a patient’s values when making healthcare decisions.

Rather than simply offering a diagnosis to patients, this more philosophical approach to medicine gives transparency to the reasoning behind a doctor’s decisions and provides the opportunity for treatment options to be more collaborative.

This focus on valuing the input of both the patient and healthcare provider is part of what makes the research initiative by the AHA and PCORI different. Patients were involved from the earliest stage.

As someone who’s experienced a life-changing diagnosis multiple times, Norton knows that patients are often thinking one thing when presented with a treatment option: Does it really work?

“Treatments don’t work if patients don’t understand them or the value said,” said Sue Nelson, the AHA’s executive vice president of federal advocacy and a speaker at Tuesday’s briefing. “Shared decision making can help conversations between patients and providers be more meaningful.”

It’s not only her own heart disease diagnosis that keeps Norton motivated to find answers. In 1964, two days before her high school graduation, her father had a heart attack. While he survived, he continued to struggle with health issues.

Then, over a decade later, he had another heart attack. This time, it was fatal.

While Norton and her brother were unsure if the heart attack was a result of her father’s smoking, they knew there was a possibility they also might be at risk for heart disease.

Although it’s difficult to say if this patient-centered approach could have saved her father, Norton says she will never stop working to find treatment options for other heart disease patients.

When she’s not speaking before lawmakers on Capitol Hill or reviewing articles for the Health News Review, Norton keeps busy biking and chasing after her four grandchildren.

She realizes that finding the right answers for patients is never easy, but it’s time well spent.

“It’s the outcomes that are important to patients,” she said. “We need to be sure we are asking the right questions.”

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