AF Association Pulse Check Event

Myself and some of my colleagues recently relinquished a Saturday off, and braved the icy cold (read: British) weather to try to meet with the public, and raise awareness of atrial fibrillation through a project spearheaded by the AF Association.

I didn’t organise the event, but was kindly invited along, and jumped at the chance to help some of my amazing Cardiology workmates by checking pulses, and recording rhythm strips using the AliveCor mobile ECG monitor (which I have previously reviewed here).

AF is an atrial arrhythmia, wherein the sinus node does not cause appropriate, rhythmic depolarisation as it normally would. Rather, multiple foci activate, facilitating a motion akin to ‘quivering’, which raises the risk of embolism through the inefficient pushing of the blood into the ventricles. It’s an incredibly dangerous problem if left untreated, so it’s vital that it gets detected, and preferably this would happen early.


I go into detail about AF, it’s mechanisms and ECG presentation in this study guide, so have a look at that if you want to understand it further.

As you may or may not be aware, atrial fibrillation is, globally, the most common clinically significant cardiac arrhythmia, and it is thought that whilst 1.2 million people (a conservative estimate) in the UK are known sufferers of the sinus node disorder, a 500,000 have it, and live undiagnosed. The estimated cost of AF to the NHS was somewhere in region of £2.2 billion, in 2008, and given that the prevalence of the arrhythmia has increased year on year, this number may well be higher now.

Obviously, this is far from an exhaustive exploration of AF, but hopefully it gives some insight into why it’s so important to detect and treat, and why initiatives such as this one are a good idea.

We set up shop in Frome’s Westaway shopping centre at around 10am, where members of the public who’d read about the event in the local newspaper were already queueing. We four clinical scientists proceeded to advise and check 85 people throughout the day. We had a surprise visit from Cardiologist’s Kitchen, too!


Mary, of Cardiologist’s Kitchen fame, showed up to say hello!


Many people we talked to had little-to-no idea what the condition was, its risks, or how it was treated, so we used literature, ECG examples, and a scale model of a heart, to educate, and taught people how to check their own pulse before performing quick rhythm recordings which we analysed on the spot. More than a few people who attended had known AF, and their questions largely involved their current treatment, and the potential impact AF might have on their life. Most, however, visited so they could get checked over, hopefully putting their mind at rest, and learning something in the process.

We didn’t find any new atrial fibrillation (although we did discover two cases of previously undiscovered AV Block), but of equal importance to arrhythmia discovery, was the community engagement, particularly in a public setting. In clinics it’s easy to fall into a cycle with patients, due to schedules and time pressures, and whilst we all try our hardest to make sure everyone is treated individually, seeing the problem before the person is always possible. Interacting with patients on “their turf” meant the ball was in their court, if you like, and the sheer volume of people who expressed an interest meant it couldn’t have been further from a wasted day.

The feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive, and there was a recurring theme in the gratitude people felt for the healthcare environment coming to them, as oppose to the other way around. Many of those to whom we chatted understand the strain that hospitals and GP surgeries are under, and felt that visiting to be checked for AF, and other such things, would be inappropriate. In many ways, I suppose they’re right, too; regardless of the importance of finding these things, especially as they do not always present with obvious symptoms, healthcare centres, unfortunately, cannot cope with the demand a service such as this would present. To this end, I was glad to have ventured out to participate in this, an outdoor clinic of sorts, and educate the public on what to look for, as well as how they can guage their own heart rhythm and take some more control over their own health. I sincerely hope to do it again soon!


The AFA is a fantastic charity, so it’d be great if you were to find out a bit more about them by visiting them here.

I’d like to thank my colleagues for asking me to participate, and generally being fantastic people, those who visited us and asked lots of challenging questions, and the kind souls who bought us ginger ale and flapjacks when the temperature reached what *felt* like sub-zero levels.

The statistics used in this post are taken from the BHF. If you want to take a look for yourself, visit the British Heart Foundation, here.



Review: simECG: ECG Simulator v1.186

Download for Windows/Linux: Free

Developers: Antonio Cardoso Martins, Paulo Dias Costa, Joao Miguel Marques


I’ve been searching for a half-decent ECG simulator since last year, but hadn’t found one that costs less than “more than I have”, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the rather unnecessarily named simECG: ECG Simulator for free, on Windows and Linux.

simECG offers a number of functions in its current version. The operator can select from a series of common arrhythmias at the click of a button, and observe the associated waveform on the display. Unfortunately, only a handful of options are actually selectable, at present, with the others showing as greyed out, presumably, as with many Open Source programs, until they are finalised by the development team.

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The custom settings tab provides the means to alter each area of the trace individually, adjusting heart rate, P wave amplitude/duration and more, and watching the displayed trace change in real time. The program hints at future save/load functions for your altered settings, too, which will be a nice inclusion for educators to make use of.

simECG screen 1

All of the aforementioned are easy to use and clearly marked, even if there aren’t currently all that many of them.

The option exists to change the background between ECG paper and a monitor screen, although the ECG paper skin is purely cosmetic. It would have been nice if the paper option was more in correlation with the amplitudes and durations selectable in the readout options. Greyed out sections of the “preferences” tab hint that calibration will soon be able to be changed by the user, so it would be preferable for beginners and students if these proposed calibration options had a realistic background to use in conjunction with the created trace.

simECG screen 4

I couldn’t find an option to reset the trace at all, even in a greyed out form, and as a result, returning to the default custom settings is something of a chore. Hopefully this is something the developers will consider including in future iterations.

By now you may have noticed the appearance of the waveforms in the above trace. The trace waveform was one of the first things I noticed, as the whole thing doesn’t look right. The P and T waves look malformed, with the latter presenting almost as though the patient was displaying hyperkalaemia despite this being labeled as a normal sinus ECG.

simECG screen 3

The assessment quiz tab gives the user an opportunity to identify 10 rhythms in 60 seconds. It’s fun, sure, but given the odd appearance of the waveforms, it becomes a case of memorising the traces present in this program alone, as they aren’t all applicable to real life.

I’ll be honest, it’s hard to criticise something that the developers admit will “never be finished” due to its Open Source status, but the nature of this website and Open Source in general means it pays to remain objective. In actuality, whilst I have highlighted a few issues, the fact that this tool is ever-evolving and totally free, means I can only commend the development team for their ethos and hard work.

Martins, Costa and Marquez state their belief that education shouldn’t be a corporate tool, or purchasable commodity, rather it should be accessible to all. The more people there are to flag issues, the better an idea the team can have of what functionality to add, what bugs to fix, and what other changes are felt to be necessary by users. Despite being generally incomplete at present, it’s not only one to watch for in the future, but one I’d ask every cardiac physiologist to download and play around with.

Due to this version still being in the 1.n phase, I have high hopes for the future of this software, as it has great potential as a learning tool. With the addition of more options in the preset tab, further wave/interval customisation, and more accurate waveforms in general, simECG could help physiology students consolidate their knowledge without carting loads of textbooks around, making it an essential bit of kit.

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