Heart valve disease is a common, serious, but treatable condition if identified early, and can be diagnosed with a simple stethoscope heart check.
Unfortunately, due to stethoscope checks not being included in the Medicare Benefit Schedule (MBS) heart health assessment, they are not routine and so patients need to request the check.
According to recent data, 53 per cent of GPs say they are not checking a patient’s heart at all unless they ask for it.
Of the GPs that are offering heart checks to their patients, very few are offering a stethoscope check.
Some GPs admitted they are not aware of the symptoms associated with heart valve disease, making it more difficult to diagnose and treat.
With so many patients being unaware that they should request a stethoscope heart check, 90 per cent of those suffering from aortic stenosis, one of the most serious – and most common – types of heart valve disease in Australia, currently do not make it to treatment.
Signs of heart valve disease are easily identifiable by a clinician doing a physical examination.
Heart valve lesions have a characteristic murmur that can be heard with a stethoscope, which is why including this in routine heart health checks is so important.
One-in-eight people aged over 75 are affected by aortic stenosis.
It gets progressively worse over time, and without treatment, patients with severe symptoms only have a 50 per cent chance of survival within the next two years.
Professor Tom Marwick, a cardiologist at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute, says heart valve disease is common, serious and treatable.
“The first step to diagnosis is recognising that exercise intolerance may not just be due to ageing.
“If you cannot do what you could do last year, see your doctor, and ask them to listen to your heart.
Marwick says the heart check is being under-utilised across the country.
“With a minor MBS change such as including a stethoscope check, it could be used to support GPs in the diagnosis of many at-risk Australians with heart valve disease, particularly older people, as cardiac risk increases with age.’’
“GPs are doing their utmost for at-risk patients, and this change to the MBS would enable them to do even more in supporting their patients and diagnosing heart valve disease.”
More than half a million Australians were living with heart valve disease in 2021, with an estimated 254,000 people currently living with the disease undiagnosed.
Time is the most significant barrier that prevents elderly patients over the age of 65 having routine stethoscope checks of their heart.
Professor Jason Kovacic, executive director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says too many Australians are unaware of heart valve disease, which if left untreated can lead to heart failure and even death.
“It’s incredibly important to be alert for the symptoms, which can range from palpitations to shortness of breath,” he says.
“Talk to your GP to get your heart checked thoroughly, including a stethoscope check.
“Whilst a diagnosis of heart valve disease can be confronting, the good news is that in most cases it can be treated very successfully.”
Heart valve disease symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty when exercising
- Chest pain
- Swollen ankles and feet
- A rapid/irregular heartbeat
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