50% Drop In Heart Attack A&E Attendances

People suffering heart attacks during the coronavirus outbreak may be putting their lives at risk by delaying seeking medical help, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

New data from hospitals across England show that the number of people seen in hospital with a suspected heart attack has halved since the beginning of March. The BHF is warning that thousands of people may be at greater risk of suffering long term heart damage, needing intensive care, or even dying as a result.

The new data from Public Health England shows that the number of people attending emergency departments in England with symptoms of a possible heart attack dropped from an average of around 300 per day at the beginning of March, to around 150 per day recorded by the end of March.

According to the BHF, this 50% drop is equivalent to approximately 5000 of the expected people every month, or more than 1100 people every week, with possible heart attack symptoms not being seen in emergency departments.

In another survey of six heart attack centres in London, where the rates of COVID-19 are highest, there was an average drop of 38% in the number of emergency percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) procedures carried out to treat heart attacks in the second half of March this year compared to the same period last year.

In a further BHF survey of 167 cardiologists across all regions and all nations in the UK;

  • 84% report a decrease in numbers of patients admitted with the type of heart attack needing PCI treatment.
  • 71% believe people are afraid to visit hospital during the COVID-19 crisis due to fear of being exposed to the virus
  • 46% believe people are worried about putting pressure on an already overburdened NHS.

Dr Nick Linker, National Clinical Director for Heart Disease, NHS England and NHS Improvement, said: "NHS hospitals are continuing to prioritise urgent services as well as preparing and responding to the COVID outbreak and so it remains important if someone has symptoms of a heart attack such as chest pain or an underlying heart problem that gets worse that they seek urgent medical attention as they normally would.

"Treating heart attacks promptly and effectively saves lives and the services to treat them are still in place for those who need them."

A delay in people seeking medical help is one of a number of possible reasons behind the drop in emergency admissions. Breathlessness and chest pain are also known symptoms of COVID-19, potentially making it harder to identify people whose symptoms are being caused by a heart problem, and not the virus. It is also possible that changes in behaviour caused by the pandemic are affecting these numbers.

This drop has also been seen in other countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and more in-depth research is needed to properly understand how COVID-19 is impacting heart and circulatory disease.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said:

"The coronavirus pandemic is extremely serious, but it’s concerning if it also means people’s fears about the virus are putting them off calling 999 when they suffer heart attack symptoms.

“These are uncertain times, and it’s understandable that people might feel apprehensive about having to go to hospital or putting unnecessary strain on the NHS. But heart attacks don’t stop for a global pandemic."