Our mission is to detect silent atrial fibrillation in the population and treat it, to prevent as many strokes as possible.
Atrial fibrillation or AF is the most common abnormal heart rhythm – it has been estimated that if a person reaches the age of 40, there is a 1 in 4 lifetime risk of developing AF. AF disturbs the flow of blood inside the heart, leading to formation of clots, which break off and usually travel to the brain, blocking brain arteries and causing severe strokes. AF is responsible for 1/3 of all strokes, which are largely preventable by anticoagulant medications, which stop the clots from forming inside the heart in AF. Unfortunately, AF is frequently silent, especially in older people who are at greater risk of stroke, and the first sign of AF is a severe stroke.
The Heart Rhythm and Stroke Prevention Group’s main activities are to work out how best to screen for AF at scale, to prevent as many strokes as possible. We started off doing this in pharmacies, showing we could detect silent and unrecognised AF in 15 out of 1,000 people screened. We used a novel technology – a miniature ECG machine which sticks to the back of a smartphone. Initially, this needed to be checked by a cardiologist, but now the diagnosis can be made in 30 seconds. We also did some pilot studies in general practice showing that the practice nurses were ideally placed to screen older patients coming to see the doctor.
What impact will this research have?
If screening for AF could be implemented widely in those aged 65 or older, and this could be coupled with greater prescription of anticoagulant therapy as advised in guidelines, then many strokes could be avoided, not only in Australia but globally