Calls to improve heart health checks

September 18, 2019 BY

An irregular heartbeat that dramatically increases the risk of stroke is going undiagnosed among older Australians because simple pulse and heart rate monitoring is not being undertaken during routine doctor visits.

This is according to patient support group Hearts4Heart, which has released findings from a survey of 550 Australians aged 65 years and over that reveals blood pressure and cholesterol levels are prioritised during doctor visits over a heart condition known as atrial fibrillation, which increases the risk of stroke five-fold.

The survey found that only one in three older Australians has discussed their heart health with a doctor in the past 12 months, and only one in 10 has discussed atrial fibrillation as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease in this period.

New medical guidelines recommend routine screening – using a pulse test or handheld electrocardiogram (ECG) – of people aged 65 years or older for an irregular heartbeat. These guidelines state that one in 10 strokes occur in people with previously undiagnosed atrial fibrillation.

“The research shows that on average, older Australians see a doctor six times a year which provides plenty of opportunity to discuss and detect an irregular heartbeat,” Hearts4Heart chief executive officer Tanya Hall said.

“Testing and treatment of atrial fibrillation must become as routine as cholesterol or blood pressure monitoring and management.

“Thousands of Australians suffer strokes that could have been prevented if more had been done to diagnose and treat an irregular heartbeat.”

An irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation can cause blood clots to form in a chamber of the heart which can then travel to the brain, causing a stroke. It is estimated that a quarter of strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.

Experts say that early diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is key to the prevention of stroke and are calling for pulse and heart rate testing with follow up ECG examination, to be included as part of the Medicare-funded Heart Health Check.

Introduced in April this year, the Heart Health Check incentivises doctors to screen for cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, smoking history and alcohol consumption. It does not require a doctor to undertake a pulse or ECG test to detect and diagnose atrial fibrillation.

Hearts4Heart is also urging early diagnosis of atrial fibrillation to be matched by long-term use of medication, which can reduce the risk of stroke by up to 70 per cent.

A new analysis produced for Hearts4Heart reveals that about 25 per cent of people prescribed anticoagulation medicine to prevent stroke discontinue therapy within 12 months.

“This is alarming. We need to ensure people with atrial fibrillation understand why they’ve been prescribed an anticoagulant and why they need to continue to take this medication over the long term,” Ms Hall said.