Oct 19, 2021 – According to a new national survey* of health professionals and researchers carried out by Heart & Stroke, the impact of the pandemic on heart and brain health has been substantial and is expected to continue. People who were already living with heart disease or stroke may now have worse outcomes, inequities have increased, research was stalled, and the healthcare system was seriously disrupted.
Nine in 10 of the health professionals and researchers who responded to the survey are worried that the health of people living with heart disease or stroke has gotten worse because they were not always able to access the care they needed during the pandemic. According to eight in 10 surveyed, delays in diagnosis and treatment because of the pandemic was the biggest issue for people living with heart disease or stroke and over half say mental health issues are going to be significant. Further, over half are worried about a decrease in cardiovascular health in people who did not have existing conditions prior to the pandemic.
“Earlier in the pandemic I had multiple shifts in the emergency department where I didn’t see any heart and stroke patients and I wondered, ‘where are you?’ It was like they disappeared,” says Dr. Clare Atzema, a Heart & Stroke funded researcher and emergency medicine physician at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. “But those patients needed care, they needed to be seen. Now I am afraid we are going to see a wave of patients who are going to need both more care and more intense care, and we will need new research to figure out how we manage these diseases better.”
Paul King from Owen Sound, Ontario experienced delays in being diagnosed with heart disease and his subsequent bypass surgery was rescheduled three times due to disruptions caused by the pandemic. He lived through uncertainty between November 2020 when he first experienced chest pain and May 2021 when he underwent a seven-hour heart procedure. Paul is grateful for the care he received – especially during this challenging time, which he knows prevented a heart attack. “The system was overburdened but the healthcare workers were amazing. The schedules they kept, what they had to do, was just incredible.”
According to an earlier Heart & Stroke online survey** of people living with stroke, heart disease or vascular cognitive impairment (VCI), two in three report having had at least one medical appointment changed, delayed or cancelled during the pandemic. However, virtual healthcare opportunities expanded as more than eight in 10 people living with a heart condition, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment report having had a virtual healthcare appointment during the pandemic.
The survey of health experts and researchers revealed serious concerns regarding equity in care. Social and economic disadvantages have always affected people’s health status, risk of infections, health behaviours, and access to health services. Not surprisingly the burden of COVID-19 was not shared equally, for example lower-income neighbourhoods were hit harder than more affluent ones. Nine in 10 experts expressed concern that those who bore a disproportionate burden of ill health effects due to the pandemic will continue to do so. Almost half of experts are worried that those living with heart disease or stroke who were already vulnerable due to inequities before the pandemic are now at even greater risk, and eight in 10 believe the healthcare gap – between those who receive adequate care and those who don’t – has widened.
Challenges for health research and the healthcare system
More than three in four health professionals and researchers are worried that the pandemic has slowed or stopped critical heart and brain health research. There have been disruptions to recruitment and ongoing trials due to public health measures and many researchers who are also clinicians were focused on providing care for COVID patients.
The three biggest post-pandemic challenges facing the healthcare system identified by health professionals and researchers are healthcare provider burnout, increased wait times for appointments and procedures and an increased burden on the system due to more and sicker patients.
Health professionals and researchers anticipate their work will change and some expect the changes will be substantial. They also identified key areas of focus to best support heart and stroke patients going forward: including rehabilitation, treatment, and community support and services for recovery. However, the disruption of the pandemic also provided opportunities for innovation, such as more opportunities for virtual healthcare.
“The pandemic has created challenges that demand unprecedented focus and commitment and although we have witnessed resiliency and innovation there is much to be done to improve outcomes for people living with heart disease and stroke,” says Dr. Patrice Lindsay, Director, Health Systems, Heart & Stroke. “Going forward advancing heart and brain research is more important than ever.”
Heart disease and stroke are the number one killer globally, and two of the three leading causes of death in Canada. 1.6 million people in Canada are living with heart disease or stroke.
*Heart & Stroke (in cooperation with Environics Research) online, national, bilingual survey of 370 health professionals (heart and brain health researchers, neurologists, cardiologists, family physicians, emergency physicians, nurses, paramedics, rehabilitation and other allied health professionals, pharmacists, and system leaders and decision makers) between August 16 – September 7, 2021.
**Heart & Stroke online survey of 3016 people living with a heart condition, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment and caregivers between March 23 – April 26, 2021.
About Heart & Stroke
Life. We don’t want you to miss it. That’s why Heart & Stroke leads the fight against heart disease and stroke. We must generate the next medical breakthroughs, so Canadians don’t miss out on precious moments. Together, we are working to promote health, save lives and promote recovery through research, prevention, and public policy. heartandstroke.ca
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