Heart failure has reached epidemic proportions, and it's not slowing down. From now until 2030, U.S. cases of heart failure will surge 45 percent.
That's alarming. The condition, wherein the heart becomes too weak to effectively pump blood, afflicts millions of adults and costs billions of dollars to treat each year.
Worse, our healthcare system sets patients with heart failure up to, well, fail. We don't tend to intervene until a patient has already developed symptoms, when it may be too late to prevent a trip to the hospital.
We must change the way we think about and treat heart failure. Fortunately, new technology can monitor at-risk patients around the clock. That enables doctors to anticipate heart problems early and adjust treatments before a health crisis occurs. Deploying that technology more widely would improve countless lives -- and save money.
Over 6 million Americans suffer from heart failure. They're severely limited in their daily lives -- often fatigued and short of breath. They may retain fluid, be unable to exercise, or have an abnormal heart beat.
Frequent trips to the hospital are common. One-quarter of patients are readmitted within a month after their first visit. Half go back within 6 months.
Heart failure is costly, too. The average hospital visit lasts about six days and costs more than $11,000. After factoring in medical bills, spending on medication, missed days of work, and other expenses, the condition saps the nation of $31 billion every single year. That toll will more than double to $70 billion by 2030.
Today, when patients are diagnosed with heart failure, they usually receive medication and are instructed to consume less sodium and drink fewer fluids. But these courses of action don't actually stop their heart problems. They might even make matters worse. One recent study found that nearly half of patients who restricted their sodium intake were hospitalized or died, compared to only one-quarter of patients who did not do so.
What's more, even if patients notice that their symptoms are worsening, they frequently don't tell their doctors. Research shows that patients with heart failure struggle to keep doctor's appointments, don't feel comfortable with their physicians, and often suffer from neurological problems like confusion or short-term memory loss. Those factors can all prevent effective communication.
Physicians need a way to identify complications linked to heart failure in their patients before they occur. New technology can help them do just that.
Researchers at the University of Missouri, for example, have developed sensors that can predict heart problems. The sensors are placed under the patient's bed to track his or her heart rate. This data allows doctors to predict congestive heart failure up to two weeks earlier than they can in patients without sensors.
Scientists at the Ohio State University are testing a vest that detects fluid accumulation in the lungs of congestive heart failure patients. The vest would enable doctors to monitor fluid levels daily and tweak treatments accordingly.
Abbott, a healthcare company specializing in heart failure solutions, has developed a low-risk, easy-to-insert sensor that takes exact readings of pressure inside the chest and transmits the data to doctors. The sensor enables them to monitor their patients from afar. If they detect any irregularities, they can adjust patients' medications before they wind up in the hospital.Previously, getting this kind of data would have required an invasive procedure that kept patients in the hospital for hours or days. Now, it's much simpler.
And it's effective. A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that Abbott's sensor reduced hospitalizations due to heart failure by 46 percent and cut patient medical costs by $7,000 over the following six months.
Unfortunately, many patients don't have access to tools like these. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can change that by ensuring that devices like these are covered by Medicare.
The short-term price tag may seem steep. But by keeping patients out of expensive acute-care settings, there would actually be substantial long-term savings.
Heart failure afflicts far too many people already. Thankfully, new technology can help keep patients out of the hospital, improve their quality of life, and reduce healthcare costs. It's time for public health officials to embrace these technologies -- just as the clinical community and the fortunate patients who have benefited from them have.
Susan Joseph is a cardiologist in Dallas, Texas, who specializes in Advanced Heart Failure and Mechanical Circulatory Support. She is a leading expert on novel heart failure treatment options.
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