Over 20,000 people in the North East and North Cumbria at risk of life-threatening hidden heart condition experts warn

A CREDIT-CARD sized heart monitoring device is set to prevent 280 strokes, save 70 lives and £6.3m for the NHS and social care in the North East and North Cumbria over the next two years.

The “breakthrough” AliveCor technology being rolled out by the NHS speeds up the diagnosis of Atrial Fibrillation (AF) – an often hidden condition responsible for 1 in 5 strokes.

The Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria (AHSN NENC), which distributes the technology in the region, is urging individuals of all ages and backgrounds to educate themselves on the risks and symptoms of AF.

Experts estimate that more than 23,291 people in the North East and North Cumbria have undiagnosed irregular heart rhythm, which can cause a stroke if not detected and treated appropriately, usually through blood-thinning medication to prevent clots that lead to stroke.

Over the last 18 months, more than 250 AliveCor devices have been distributed to GP practices, pharmacies and NHS community clinics across the region.

The take-up of the innovative pulse-checking devices will both speed up and increase the detection of irregular heart rhythm in patients, allowing them to be referred on for further investigations.

As a result, the regional project aims to contribute towards identification of 10,000 new cases of atrial fibrillation over two years, which could prevent at least 280 strokes, and save 70 lives and £ 6.3m in associated health costs annually.

The AliveCor technology includes a device that links with a smartphone or smart device, such as a tablet, and works via an app to assess heart rhythms. Small and easy-to-use, NHS staff can also take the devices on home visits and allow more staff across a greater number of settings to quickly and easily conduct pulse checks. The mobile devices also provide a far more sensitive and specific pulse check than a manual check.

Patients who show an irregular rhythm will then be referred on for further investigations and this will reduce the use of costly and unnecessary 12 lead ECGs in the diagnosis process.

Mary Walsh, from Stockton-on-Tees, has already seen the benefits of the new technology, describing how diagnosis of AF has helped to “give me my life back.”

The 71-year-old had not been feeling well for a number of months. She was short of breath, tired and suffering from regular dizzy spells.

She said: “I couldn’t put my finger on why I felt unwell so I booked an appointment at my GP surgery. The nurse and GP checked my pulse, which was over 50, and the doctor recommended I go for an ECG and we also discussed blood thinning medication.

“The GP then produced this small device which was linked to his phone. I had to put my fingers on a small sensor pad and it then produced a reading on the doctor’s phone – I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

The AliveCor device provided confirmation that Mary had abnormal activity, which was later confirmed by the ECG as atrial fibrillation.

She added: “Before I went to the doctor I had been feeling unwell for some time and it was having a significant impact on my life. I struggled to remain as active as I used to be, which was especially upsetting when it came to playing with my grandchild.

“Thankfully, AliveCor helped give me my life back. The device really is amazing and I’m certain it will help save people’s lives. It is so simple and straightforward and it gave the result in seconds.”

The pulse-checking devices are being rolled out nationally by the 15 NHS and care innovation bodies, known as Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs), as part of an NHS England-funded project.

Kate Mackay, AF Programme Manager for AHSN NENC, said: “We know that many people in our region are unaware they have atrial fibrillation, which if undiagnosed, can lead to serious strokes.

“This new, innovative and cost-effective technology is a real breakthrough and will help the NHS identify people with the condition much quicker and more easily. It’s fantastic that our region is able to benefit from these exciting developments and that more lives will be saved as a result.”

Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, former Medical Director of NHS England and heart surgeon, said: “Cardiovascular disease kills more people in this country than anything else, but there are steps we can all take to prevent it. These innovations have enormous potential to prevent thousands of strokes each year, which is why NHS England has committed to funding the rollout of 6,000 mobile ECG devices to help identify cases of atrial fibrillation so behaviours can be changed and treatment started before strokes occur.

“We are also encouraging people to learn how to check their own pulse so we can catch even more cases.”

One million people in the UK are known to be affected by AF and an additional 422,600 people are undiagnosed. As the most common type of irregular heart rhythm, it is responsible for approximately 20% of all strokes. Survivors must live with the disabling consequences and treating the condition costs the NHS nationally over £2.2 billion each year.