News release: Study shows access to quality health care, tied to people living longer with chronic disease, results in higher COVID-19 deaths

Heart & Stroke-led research also confirms thousands of cardiovascular procedures postponed during the pandemic

(Ottawa) — New research led by Heart & Stroke published in CJC Open shows that in countries like Canada with accessible health care and a higher proportion of people living with heart conditions and stroke, the COVID-19 death rate is higher than in countries with fewer healthcare services. The study also reveals the serious disruption to essential health care for people living with cardiovascular disease, with more than 1,200 medical procedures being postponed each month in Ontario alone due to the impact of the pandemic.

“The higher death rate due to COVID-19 in countries such as Canada is surprising. This is partly because more people in countries with greater availability of essential healthcare services survive heart conditions and stroke,” says Dr. Cindy Yip, Director, Data Knowledge Management and Heart Program, Heart & Stroke and principal investigator of the study. “This means more people are actually living with these conditions longer and this puts them at greater risk of dying from COVID-19.”

In fact, for every 1% increase in the size of a country’s population with heart conditions or stroke, the death rate from COVID-19 was 19% higher. Older age also puts people at greater risk of dying from COVID-19: for every 1% increase in the size of a country’s population of people 65 years and older, the death rate from COVID-19 was 9% higher.

An estimated 297 coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) procedures, 703 percutaneous coronary interventions (PCI or angioplasty with stent) and 252 valve surgeries for a total of 1,252 procedures are being postponed per month in Ontario due to COVID-19.

“The number of procedures for people living with heart conditions or stroke that have been postponed during the pandemic is significant,” says Dr. Sharon Mulvagh, cardiologist and professor at Dalhousie University and a co-author of the study. “The repercussions from these delays will impact the health of people living with these conditions. Now as the first wave of the pandemic is subsiding and we are gradually reopening services, we are witnessing that the associated backlog is creating real challenges as the healthcare system begins to increase towards full capacity. However, the good news is that we are learning a lot of lessons about adjusting delivery of services in the event that subsequent waves occur.”

The study also identified that countries with higher rates of COVID-19 testing have lower death rates from the virus. For every 1% increase in testing for COVID-19, deaths from COVID-19 decrease 4%. This could be due to a larger overall number of COVID-19 cases identified, resulting in a lower overall death rate, as well as providing more information about active cases.

“The more you test, the more lives you save,” says Dr. Patrice Lindsay, Director, Systems Change and Stroke Program, Heart & Stroke and a co-author of the study. “Higher rates of testing increase the likelihood of identifying milder cases, allowing for the disease to be caught earlier, and potentially reducing the severity of those infected and the spread of the disease."

Although many procedures have been postponed due to COVID-19, anyone living with a heart condition or stroke who experiences a change or worsening in symptoms should seek medical attention – even during a pandemic. Not getting timely treatment for ongoing chronic conditions could result in patients becoming critically ill or worse and an even greater eventual impact on the healthcare system.  

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Megan Radford
Heart & Stroke

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 people in Canada don’t miss out on precious moments. Together, we are working to prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery through research, health promotion and public policy.