For more than two decades, Dr. Charles Athill, an electrophysiologist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital, has dedicated his medical career to caring for patients with atrial fibrillation. Also known as AFib, this common heart condition leads to 158,000 U.S. deaths each year.
It is one such death — his father’s — that continues to drive his passion for his work. While Dr. Athill was in medical school, his father died from the disease after years of struggling to understand and comply with his treatment plan.
Dr. Athill’s brother was also diagnosed with the condition several years ago and had a stroke after he stopped taking his medications. Now, his brother — who is the same age as their father was when he died — suffers from heart failure.
“If a doctor is not able to explain the underlying issue and get the patient to buy into the therapies that are prescribed, they won’t be able to manage their condition,” says Dr. Athill. “And it shows that even with a medical person in your family, there are certain barriers that are hard to break through.”
AFib causes an irregular heartbeat due to defects or damage to the heart’s structure. Electrical signals in the upper heart chamber, or atrium, fire incorrectly. As a result, the heart beats rapidly and out of rhythm.
The biggest concern for patients with AFib is the increased risk of stroke. The irregular heart rhythm can cause clots to form, which can then travel to the brain, block blood flow and cause a stroke.
Dr. Athill’s own family experience motivates him to not only offer the most advanced treatment options to his patients, but also to ensure they understand the disease and take their medications correctly.
He specializes in the electrical signals that make hearts beat. Specifically, Dr. Athill performs catheter ablations — a procedure that eliminates abnormal electrical signals — with the goal of restoring a normal heart rhythm. He also performs minimally invasive techniques that can reduce or eliminate the increased risk of AFib-related stroke.
Populations most at risk
More than 454,000 AFib-related hospitalizations happen each year in the U.S., and the death rate has been rising for more than two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 12.1 million people in the U.S. will have AFib by 2030.
Minority populations — which experience higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and congestive heart failure — are disproportionately affected by AFib. According to Dr. Athill, their outcomes are worse due in part to limited knowledge of the disease and access to health care services, as well as lack of trust in their doctor.
Many physicians don’t take into consideration how their patients’ backgrounds affect their decisions, and why understanding cultural issues is so crucial in taking care of these populations, he says.
“For example, African American people often experience biases in the healthcare environment,” says Dr. Athill. “I take cultural background into account when talking to patients. I always ensure their voice is heard, their perspective is understood and that they feel respected while under my care.”
Dr. Athill takes this responsibility beyond just the bedside. He currently sits on the Sharp Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees, where he represents doctors and advocates for medical practice. In this role, he also helps shape decisions on how best to deliver care to San Diego’s diverse population now and into the future.
“There is a crisis in medicine today despite all the technological advances and dedicated doctors and nurses,” says Dr. Athill. “Everyone needs to work harder to provide more resources, so each person is guaranteed access to health care.”