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.

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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!

 

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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!

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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.

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Is Screening all Young People for Cardiac Disease Cost Effective?

In Western medicine, especially the U.K. and U.S.A., mandatory screening for cardiac disease in young people doesn’t exist.

The NHS currently offers screening for the following:

  • Newborns (blood, cardiac, hearing tests, and physical examination)
  • Pregnancy (foetal abnormalities, blood tests, and infectious disease)
  • Diabetic eye testing (annual follow-ups for cases confirmed in >12 year olds)
  • Cervical (every 3 years for 26-49 year olds, and every 5 years for 50-64 year olds)
  • Breast cancer (50-70 year olds, 70+ individuals can self-refer)
  • Bowel cancer (55-74 year olds)
  • Abdominal Aortic Aneurism (65 year old men. Over 65s can self-refer)

These tests are designed to aid in patient healthcare and to alleviate the long-term financial burden on the heath service, but as you can see, they’re fairly narrow in their scope. Aside from newborns, the vast majority of the screening programmes cater to individuals in later life, or after index presentation/diagnosis. If one suspects an abnormality, then of course, there are many private options available, and in fact, cardiac screening for precursors to sudden cardiac death (such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy) is in place for young athletes. Given that the estimated number of young people with the abnormality currently stands at 1 in 500, it has been theorised with this and other cardiac diseases in mind, that mandatory screening for young people could ease the cost on the NHS, enhance patient treatment/safety and the emotional fallout that comes as a result of the morbidity associated with serious cardiac conditions.

The results of a nationwide U.K. screening programme known as Cardiac Risk in the Young imply that mass-screening that also encompasses ECG in addition to the standard physical exam and history increases the likelihood of early diagnosis and actually saves money.

The results are the endpoint of a 4-year process, involving roughly 30,000 young persons who were screened using the above methods, all of which were performed and interpreted using the relevant professionals and governing body guidelines.

8.1% of the 30,000 were deemed to produce an abnormal 12-lead ECG, 3.5% had an abnormal physical exam and/or history, and 0.5% showed abnormality in all three areas. 11.7% underwent echocardiography to confirm or deny the presence of dysfunction, 0.9% were referred for cardiac MRI, 1.7% were moved on to longer-term ECG monitoring, and 1.7% had exercise stress testing.

87 abnormalities associated with SCD syndrome were positively diagnosed at the 2-year follow up mark, accounting to 0.3% of the cohort, and 83% of this number was done so using the ECG alone. Interestingly this 83% was found in individuals who presented as asymptomatic, and would likely go undiagnosed otherwise.

The cost of this screening and subsequent treatment of a positive identification is estimated to be 20% lower than the cost of treatment and screening using current requirements, due to its lowering of false positives from 21.8% to 4.3%. This, in turn, lowers the amount of unnecessary follow ups, so this study may have great implications for young athletes, and non-athletes alike in helping to spot these potentially fatal conditions, many of which can be managed.

More on this story and more at: Cardiac Risk in the Young

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SCST Diploma Day: A Reflection

Myself and OliGS recently sat the SCST Electrocardiography Diploma and Practical Examination, so I thought I’d jot down some of my experiences in the run up, and my retrospective thoughts on the day itself.

If you’re thinking of doing it, or have your PTP finals looming, then read on, as this will give you an idea of what to expect.

I’ll start by saying this: Oli and I have NEVER been so stressed in our entire lives.

This exam was a nightmare for which to prepare; I have extensive experience in taking exams, and it is my view that they’re 50% what you know, and 50% what the examiners want you to tell them. Without having met these examiners or seen a previous paper, it was very difficult to know what to really nail, in the revision stage. The syllabus was long, detailed, and contained what seemed like an entire career’s-worth of things to learn, so we already knew it was going to be a slog, but nothing prepared us for the written paper…

Read these. Lots.

We studied, sometimes sleeplessly, for weeks. Tested each other on rare arrhythmias, read textbooks cover-to-cover (repeatedly), and watched each other’s once sunny outlooks and youthful (ahem) features rapidly wither as the examination date draw closer. It consisted of 20 multiple choice questions, 10 arrhythmia analysis and knowledge questions, and 4 full ECG analysis recordings. Some of these were almost instantly recognisable, but others were brutally difficult to analyse. The MCQs (often the most looked-forward to section of any exam) were equally tough. Those 3 hours lasted a lifetime…

We left the exam battered and bruised, but glad it was over.

But it wasn’t over. It was far from over. As well as the written paper that had almost ruined us, we had the practical exam to do as well.

We had made sure that during our post-ECG placements we still got ourselves in the clinic so as to keep everything fresh, as performing a perfect ECG is not like riding a bicycle.

 

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The last attempt before test day

It turns out that this was the correct call, as was practicing on one another in the hotel the evening before the exam; the margin for error in the exam is 2mm(!) Anyone who’s had an informal assessment, or had their Direct Observed Practice scrutinised whilst training knows that it’s very easy to second-guess when it comes to electrode placement, and despite having 20 minutes to complete the whole thing, this timeframe becomes devastatingly short once you’re in there. It’s a clinical assessment, so one needs to complete the necessary ID checks, explain the procedure to the patient AND to the examiners (i.e. in two different ways), perform it whist answering questions, and then complete a verbal examination.

Three hours after we had finished the written paper, we were called to attempt our practical exam. There were ashen faces all around. Some were on those still waiting for their number to be called as ours had just been, others had been told that their 2 attempts had been unsuccessful. Neither of us were looking forward to this. Now, given that I’ve already stated that each electrode is allowed to deviate only 2mm from the precise, gold standard location, the internet-purchased electrodes pictured in the above image would be somewhat unfair, right? It seems that the examination board concur, as they provide some rather cool, transparent electrodes complete with crosshairs. They doesn’t make it easier, per se, but they certainly go some way eliminate that lingering trepidation when it comes to deciding you’re happy with your placement and ready for judgement.

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Crosshair emblazoned electrodes(!)

I opted for the “all at once” technique: I explained everything to the patient before I started, gained consent, then explained everything I was doing as I went along. Once was put simply to the patient, then once to the examiners, using correct terminology. I paid extra special attention to V1, V2 and V4, as my patient had a particularly wide sternum, so I wanted to be totally sure that I had the sternal border, especially given the electrodes were rather far apart when placed and looked slightly odd to me. After I took a step back and looked at my work, I was incredibly tempted to move the aforementioned electrodes, but either due to fear, fatigue, or a combination of the two, I decided to leave them as they were, opting to go with my initial judgement. After that, I waited.

I’m not entirely sure how the placements are measured, as candidates are asked to leave the room whilst they are checked by two examiners. I heard someone mentioning special rulers, but I didn’t get a look at them (it’s all very cloak and dagger), in any event, you’re called back into the room and, in my case at least, informed of your passing or failing grade. I’m pleased to report that I passed on the first attempt, which as I’m sure you can imagine, was a tremendous relief; I lost my cool somewhat, and expressed my joy rather loudly, as I was informed I wouldn’t have to do it again. Oli soon found me in the waiting area and, grinning wildly, slapped me on the back and hissed “YESSSSS!” before promptly throwing himself into a chair. It was over, and we were victorious.

We didn’t speak too much about it, on the way home, but in the couple of days that have passed since the exam, we both feel a tremendous sense of pride that we actually did it, and did it successfully. If I were to give you all some advice, it would be the following:

  1. Be prepared for anything and everything, including waiting around for a long while
  2. Practice analysing ECGs until you hate them
  3. Practice performing ECGs until you hate them
  4. Go with your gut as much as you can during the practical exam
  5. Bring lunch
  6. Don’t under ANY circumstances, stay at the Ibis Hotel in Birmingham’s Chinatown district (I can’t stress this enough because it backs onto a nightclub that doesn’t stop playing the most bass-heavy music until the wee hours of the morning)

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Ajmaline Provocation in Suspected Brugada

Today, I was present during a Brugada provocation test using ajmaline, a class 1a antiarrhythmic drug much like class 1c drug, flecainide, in that it acts as a Na channel blocker. As its action lengthens the action potential phase 0, in non-pacemaker myocytes, it induces bradycardia, and encourages the transient Brugada rhythm to present itself.

Indications for the test are outlined here, and the procedure itself, is a relatively simple one;

  • Ajmaline is prepared at a total dose of 1mg/kg-1
  • 12 lead ECG is applied to the patient
    • V1 and V2 should be positioned on IC3 or IC2
    • The ECG should be viewable in real time, as well as be printable
  • Intravenous Ajmaline is administered in a 10mg bolus, every 2 minutes
    • Fractions should be administered slowly over 1 minute
  • ECG should be printed after each dose

Indications for terminating the test are as follows:

  • Ajmaline dosage is completely administered
  • Typical Brugada criteria present on the ECG
    • ST coving present in more than 1 right precordial lead
    • J point elevation greater than 2mm
  • Incidence of:
    • PVCs
    • AV Block (2nd° or 3rd°)
    • VT
    • Sinus arrest

During the test, the patient indicated that the initial 10mg was very unpleasant, and caused “a horrible feeling” at the back of her throat. She did say that this initial bolus was the worst, however, and that subsequent injections were bearable, by comparison. Towards the end of the test, i.e., one injection from termination, the patient indicated that her lips had become almost completely numb.

The test, in this case, was negative, and the patient’s ECG showed no changes to suggest Brugada at any point throughout the procedure.

Ajmaline is unlicensed in the UK, but this is not indicative of its level of safety, rather it is because it is manufactured in Germany, and imported to trusts in this country. Curious as to why ajmaline was being used, I asked the nurse practitioner who was on hand to implement the test, who informed me why the trust opted to use ajmaline as oppose to flecainide, when both seemingly do the same thing. She cited the time taken for each pharmaceutical agent to leave the patient after the test; in the event of a negative outcome, ajmaline allows a patient to be discharged safely in around 3 hours, whereas flecainide takes a great deal longer to be removed.

Not knowing the costs associated with each drug, I decided to look for other reasons as to why an imported medication is used in this provocative study, and discovered research by Wolpert et al  published in 2005, that tested ajmaline and flecainide against each other in a blind trial.

22 patients for whom a diagnosis of Brugada was already known, underwent IV flecainide and ajmaline testing, and the results were then studied by 3 physicians who were unaware of the drug being used in provocation.

The results for flecainide showed

  • Significant ST changes in 15/22 of the patients tested (68%)
  • Mean V1 amplitude of 0.19mV
  • Mean V2 amplitude of 0.31mV
  • Mean V3 amplitude of 0.1mV

The results for ajmaline showed

  • Significant ST changes in 22/22 of the patients tested
  • Mean V1 amplitude of 0.22mV
  • Mean V2 amplitude of 0.39mV
  • Mean V3 amplitude of 0.1mV

It is important to note, that whilst these results show a more favourable outcome when using ajmaline over flecainide, in provocative studies, this research is limited in that, despite being a blinded study, it was not a randomised trial and was not repeated. Nevertheless, it does suggest that provocative studies using flecainide may not successfully unmask Brugada syndrome in patients, and its longer life within the patient may favour the use of ajmaline in investigations.

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