An estimated 5000 heart attack sufferers in England may have missed out on life-saving hospital treatment due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to new research funded by the British Heart Foundation.
The study, published this week in The Lancet, shows that only two-thirds of the expected number of patients with heart attacks were admitted to hospital between the middle of February and the end of March 2020.
People afraid to seek care
The researchers believe that public concern about the coronavirus could have put people off seeking urgent medical help when they experienced heart attack symptoms.
By the end of May, admission rates had partially recovered but remained below expected levels. The study points to a British Heart Foundation and British Cardiovascular Society publicity campaign in early April – which encouraged people with heart attack symptoms to dial 999 immediately – as important in allying such fears.
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, British Heart Foundation’s Associate Medical Director and Consultant Cardiologist, said:
“We’re extremely concerned about the estimated 5,000 heart attacks ‘missing’ from the UK’s hospitals throughout this pandemic. These troubling statistics point to people delaying seeking care for their heart attack, risking death or long-term heart damage.
“A&E attendances for possible heart attacks appear to have bounced back to normal levels, partly thanks to campaigns urging people to seek help if they experience symptoms. However, it’s no time to get complacent. As the threat of coronavirus appears to ebb and flow, so do people’s feelings of fear and uncertainty. Thanks to decades of research, prompt treatment for your heart attack could save your life, so if you think you are experiencing symptoms call 999 immediately.”
Missed life-saving treatment
The study used data regularly collected by NHS Digital from NHS Hospital Trusts in England to get up-to-date information about the number of people being admitted to hospital for heart attack in England compared to levels seen in 2019.
Admissions with heart attacks caused by a complete blockage of an artery (STEMI) fell by nearly a quarter (23%). People with this sort of heart attack are at the highest risk of suffering a cardiac arrest and usually need an urgent procedure (a percutaneous coronary intervention, or PCI) to open the blocked artery to the heart, along with medications.
Rates of admission for heart attacks caused by a partial blockage of blood supply (NSTEMI) fell by 42%. Patients with this type of heart attack need urgent assessment and treatment with medications, while many also benefit from an urgent procedure to open a narrowed artery to the heart.
A similar pattern has been observed in several other European countries, as well as in the United States, during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Normal levels partially restored
Senior author Barbara Casadei, British Heart Foundation Professor in Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford, and President of the European Society of Cardiology said:
“These findings must be taken into serious consideration in the event that a second pandemic wave develops as lockdown restrictions are eased worldwide.
“Medical societies, heart foundations, and governments have a responsibility to not only inform patients of the importance of seeking appropriate care but also to ensure that a safe environment is provided for patients who are admitted to hospital because of a cardiovascular emergency.”