Nearly 350 heart attacks, strokes or heart-related deaths over the next five years could have been prevented if Heart Health Checks had not been missed or delayed because of COVID-19, according to new modelling released by the Heart Foundation.
At least 27,000 Australians are likely to have missed out on early detection of heart attack and stroke risk during the pandemic, allowing their risk to go unmanaged and potentially leading to a rise in preventable heart events and deaths later on, the Heart Foundation says.
The dramatic drop in heart health screening has prompted the Heart Foundation to release modelling showing these Heart Health Checks could have prevented 345 heart attacks, strokes or heart disease deaths over the next five years.
Heart Foundation Chief Medical Adviser and interim Group CEO Professor Garry Jennings said delays in people having their risk assessed could be fatal.
“People have been reluctant to seek routine medical attention during the pandemic and that includes having preventive health checks like a Heart Health Check.
“This could have serious and even fatal consequences,” Jennings said.
“Fewer people having a Heart Health Check means that risk factors like high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which are generally silent or symptom free, go undiagnosed and potentially worsen, increasing people’s risk of a heart event in the future.
“What we don’t want to see is a drop in heart health screening coupled with what we are seeing overseas as a result of the pandemic, in that people with heart attack symptoms are waiting longer to seek medical attention.
“This could create a dangerous situation.
“Having a Heart Health Check gives you the best chance of preventing a heart attack or stroke.
“It’s a simple, painless check-up with your GP that could save your life.”
Heart Foundation modelling shows that at least 27,000 fewer Heart Health Checks were conducted from March 2020 to July 2021, due to the impact of COVID-19.
States least affected by the pandemic, including Western Australia and Queensland, had the highest rates of screening, averaging 30 Heart Health Checks per 1000 eligible adults, sitting well above the national average of 25 checks per 1000 adults.
Lockdowns, as well as the resource-intensive roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccination program in GP practices, were linked to dramatic drops of up to 40 per cent in people having the check across the country.
More than 217,000 Australians have seen their GP for a Heart Health Check since it was added as a temporary item to the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) in 2019 following a campaign by the Heart Foundation.
The Heart Foundation is calling for the check to become permanent.
“This concerning data reinforces the urgency of making Heart Health Checks a permanent part of the MBS, as doctors will be dealing with a backlog of people who need preventative heart health care for years to come,” Jennings said.
The Heart Health Check is for people who haven’t yet had a heart event but may be at risk of one and is available to Australians aged 45 years and over, and 30 years and over for First Nations peoples.
Jennings urged eligible Australians to speak to their GP about having a Heart Health Check.
“Fewer people having heart attacks and strokes places individuals, communities and our health system in a much stronger position to fight COVID-19,” he said.
“That’s because we know people with heart disease, including heart attack and stroke survivors and people with underlying health conditions like high blood pressure, have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from COVID-19 compared to other people in the community.”