Patient group calls for action in response to survey

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A new survey has revealed tests for blood pressure and cholesterol levels are prioritised during doctor visits over routine screening for an irregular heartbeat.

The survey of 550 Australians aged 65 years and over was commissioned by Hearts4Heart, a patient group focused on atrial fibrillation.

The survey found only one-in-three respondents have discussed their heart health with a doctor in the past 12 months and only one-in-ten has discussed atrial fibrillation as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

Hearts4Heart said new medical guidelines recommend routine screening of people aged 65 years or older for an irregular heartbeat using a pulse test or handheld electrocardiogram.

These guidelines also say one-in-ten 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,” said Hearts4Heart CEO Tanya Hall.

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

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

An event will be held at Parliament House in Canberra today to raise awareness of irregular heartbeat. Pharmacists will test politicians and highlight the importance of stroke prevention therapy.

An irregular heartbeat, known as atrial fibrillation, can cause blood clots to form in the heart. These can then travel to the brain and cause a stroke. It is estimated that one-in-four strokes occur in people with atrial fibrillation.

Ms Hall said early diagnosis of atrial fibrillation is pivotal to the prevention of stroke. She said pulse and heart rate testing with follow up ECG should be included as part of the Medicare-funded Heart Health Check.

The recently introduced Heart Health Check is designed to encourage doctors to screen for cardiovascular risk factors, including high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, smoking history and alcohol consumption.

Yet it does not require a doctor to undertake a pulse or ECG test to detect and diagnose atrial fibrillation.

Hearts4Heart said the exclusion is of concern given new Australian research that found atrial fibrillation is the leading cause of heart-related hospitalisation (more than 61,000 admissions annually) – surpassing heart attack and heart failure.

The organisation also raised concern over the lack of long-term use of medication to reduce the risk of stroke.

It said a new analysis produced by 'Prospection' reveals around 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,” added Ms Hall.