New modelling reveals pandemic impact on heart risk

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The Heart Foundation says 27,000 missed or delayed heart health checks during the COVID-19 pandemic could result in nearly 350 heart attacks, strokes or heart-related deaths over the next five years.

The foundation says the pandemic means thousands of Australians have missed out on the early detection of heart attack and stroke risk. This could delay intervention and potentially result in a rise in preventable heart events and deaths.

It says the "dramatic drop" in screening has been modelled and shows it could lead to 345 preventable heart attacks, strokes or heart disease deaths over the next five years.

The modelling shows that at least 27,000 fewer Heart Health Checks were conducted from March 2020 to July 2021. These checks are the first preventative health assessment Medicare Benefits Schedule item to incorporate absolute cardiovascular disease risk calculation and facilitate yearly assessment.

Heart Foundation chief medical adviser and interim CEO Professor Garry Jennings said delays in people having their risk assessed could be fatal.

“People have been reluctant to seek routine medical attention during the pandemic and that includes having preventive health checks like a Heart Health Check. This could have serious and even fatal consequences.

“The Heart Health Check is about detecting atherosclerotic disease early and breaking the cycle of CVD and other chronic diseases by identifying risk factors and managing them appropriately,” said Professor Jennings.

“Fewer people having a Heart Health Check means that silent conditions like hypertension and hypercholesterolemia may go undiagnosed and potentially worsen, increasing people’s risk of a heart event in the future. 

“What we don’t want to see is a drop in heart health screening coupled with what we are seeing overseas as a result of the pandemic, in that people with heart attack symptoms are waiting longer to seek medical attention.

“This could create a dangerous situation and a backlog of people who need preventative heart health care for years to come, placing additional pressure on general practice.”

The modelling shows that the states least affected by the pandemic, including Western Australia and Queensland, had the highest rates of screening, averaging 30 Heart Health Checks per 1,000 eligible adults, sitting well above the national average of 25 checks per 1,000 adults.

Lockdowns, as well as the resource-intensive roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination program, were linked to dramatic drops of up to 40 per cent in people having the check across the country.

“There’s never been a more important time to support general practitioners, who have taken a big hit in their ability to encourage and deliver preventative care during the pandemic. That’s where the Heart Health Check Toolkit comes in,” said Professor Jennings. 

The Toolkit has been designed to streamline the assessment and management of CVD risk, reducing administrative burden, and allowing general practice to get the most out of financial and quality improvement incentives. 

“It offers pre-populated assessment and management templates for Heart Health Checks that make it easier for GPs and practice nurses to collect CVD risk factor information and support patients."