29 Jun 2022

COVID-19: Leading heart specialist warns of 'life-threatening risk' to patients

COVID-19: Leading heart specialist warns of 'life-threatening risk' to patients

Decline of over 300,000 outpatient appointments in Ireland between March and April this year

A leading cardiologist has warned that thousands of patients could be ignoring the signs and symptoms of a potentially life-threatening heart issue due to fear of attending healthcare providers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Recent figures published by the National Treatment Purchase Fund (NTPF) reveal a decline of over 300,000 outpatient appointments in Ireland between March and April this year compared to the same period in 2019.

According to director of cardiology at Mater Private, Professor Robert Byrne, this decline suggests that thousands of patients may have postponed seeking expert care during the Covid-19 pandemic, which could result in potentially life-threatening issues.

The warning to Irish patients comes as Mater Private launches the Listen to Your Heart campaign, encouraging people to educate themselves about the signs and symptoms of heart disease during Irish Heart Health Month, and to seek medical advice if heart issues are a concern.

In Ireland, approximately 10,000 people die from cardiovascular disease every year. Statistics show that Irish men and women have the highest rate of death before the age of 65 from coronary heart disease in Europe.

Additional data from the NTPF reveals that there are almost 700 fewer patients on the zero to three-month wait list for cardiology treatments or procedures compared to the same period in 2019, which suggests that fewer patients were seeking referral in the months of April, May, and June this year.

The decline in the number of patients attending emergency departments for cardiac care during the Covid-19 pandemic has also been reported in several other countries. According to a recent report in leading medical journal The Lancet, England experienced a substantial reduction in weekly hospital admissions for acute coronary syndrome by the end of March 2020, and figures rebounded only partly over the rest of Q2.

A study in the British Medical Journal on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on cardiology services noted a greater than 50% drop in the number of patients presenting to cardiology and those diagnosed with myocardial infarction. 

In the USA, a survey by MedAxiom at the American College of Cardiology (ACC) found that almost one third (32%) of cardiovascular organisations in the US are reporting cancellations in 50% or more of patient visits.

“Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an evident decline in the number of people presenting to hospitals with symptoms of heart-related illness or disease. This decline in numbers is greatly concerning," says Prof Byrne. 

“Ten thousand Irish men and women die from heart disease every year. This problem has not gone away, and the correlation between the reduced numbers and the peak of the pandemic in Ireland suggests that Covid fears might be causing patients to avoid GPs or hospitals. 

“It is crucial that patients present to a medical professional if they have any potential cardiac symptoms, problems or concerns. Symptoms of a cardiac issue can include chest pain, shortness of breath, pain or weakness in the leg or arm, or sudden and unexplained pain in the neck or jaw. Others warning signs can include a racing or slow heartbeat, light-headedness, fatigue, or easily tiring during exercise or activity.

“For many people, cardiovascular disease is not diagnosed until they have a heart attack, angina, stroke or heart failure, so it is important that we raise awareness and encourage people to recognise these symptoms.

“The deferral of routine check-ups for heart disease and for treatment of risk factors for heart attacks and stroke may lead to a lasting legacy of heart disease long after the pandemic has passed.

“While the nervousness around Covid-19 is completely understandable, patients should take comfort in the stringent safety measures that are being implemented throughout hospitals to ensure patient safety and comfort," Prof Byrne adds. 

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