Survey finds majority of people living with heart disease or stroke feel vulnerable during pandemic

Health care system adapted to support people quickly by ramping up virtual care

Toronto - A just released Heart & Stroke survey shows the impact of the pandemic on people living with heart disease, stroke and vascular cognitive impairment (VCI), and the impact on their caregivers. The survey found that during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of people living with these conditions experienced changing or worsening symptoms, and that contracting COVID-19 was a major concern.  

Results illustrate the vulnerability this population feels during the pandemic, with more than half concerned for their physical and emotional health, and a significant number reporting mental health issues and feelings of isolation. A salient finding is how many caregivers felt their own health was compromised, jeopardizing the critical role they play caring for people and easing the pressure on our system.  

Sherry, 61, and Jim Beattie, 65, both have cardiac conditions and are well aware of studies that show people with heart disease are at an increased risk of complications if they contract COVID-19, even greater risk of dying. Jim had a triple bypass on March 10, just as the pandemic hit, while Sherry’s non-emergency cardiac ablation was postponed due to hospital restrictions. “Leaving the hospital after the procedure, just as the pandemic took hold was an overwhelming and even frightening experience,” says Jim, a retired teacher and volunteer fire chief.  “Once home, I was lucky to have my wife, an excellent caregiver, but it was still a stressful time,” he adds.  “We were concerned for both of us because we know we’re both at high risk,” says Sherry,” saying they depended heavily on Heart & Stroke’s community of survivors for support. “We only saw family from afar, and it was great to be able to communicate with people who understood what we were going through.” 

The feeling of vulnerability documented in the survey is something Samantha Gomez says she deeply empathizes with. The 26 year-old had a severe stroke three years ago that left her unable to move and speak. She says she got through the toughest times with the love and care of her large community of family and friends, and in part, credits this support for her remarkable recovery.  “I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had not been able to see my family at the hospital,” says Samantha. “They never left my side. They were there every day and encouraged me every step of the way.” Samantha’s experience with stroke has led to her desire to help raise awareness and funds for Heart & Stroke research.

Top survey findings that concerned people:

  • Three in four people living with a condition were worried about catching COVID-19. Three in four caregivers were worried about catching COVID-19 themselves.
  • One in seven (14%) people living with a heart condition, stroke or VCI reported that their symptoms were changing or getting worse. The number was higher for caregivers – 26% observed changing or worsening symptoms in those they cared for.  
  • Almost two-thirds (61%) of those living with a condition were concerned about having to go to the hospital if they required medical attention, and almost three-quarters (71%) of caregivers were concerned about having to go to the hospital if the person they care for required medical attention.
  • More than half of those living with a condition had concerns about their physical health (54%) and over half of caregivers expressed concerns about their own physical health (59%).  
  • Almost half of those living with a condition had concerns about their emotional health (46%) and roughly the same number (48%) reported feeling anxious or nervous, while over half of caregivers expressed concerns about their own emotional health (59%) and were feeling anxious or nervous (58%).
  • Two in five people living with a condition reported being isolated as a result of physical distancing, and two in five caregivers also reported feeling isolated.
  • Close to one-third (29%) of people living with a condition had concerns about their financial situation. More than one-third (34%) of caregivers had concerns about their own financial situation. These concerns included ability to meet basic needs for food and stable housing. 

Virtual care provides essential support during pandemic

The survey also found the system responded well with virtual care, and many respondents said virtual care provided easy and effective solutions delivering timely quality care to people living with a heart condition, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment during the pandemic.  

  • Approximately half rated virtual appointments as good as if the interaction was in person.
  • More than eight in ten reported they were convenient and saved them from having to go out.
  • Nine in ten said they were able to ask questions and get answers.
  • Eight in ten felt the healthcare provider was listening to them.

Beth Miller, a 39 year-old mother of three, had a hemorrhagic stroke last January. She spent a month in hospital doing intensive therapy to learn to walk and write again. After the lockdown, she continued her occupational and physiotherapist sessions virtually.  She credits the ability to pivot to virtual care essential in her on-going recovery.  “As devastating and terrifying as this journey was, I am very thankful to be improving, and this would not have happened if it wasn’t for virtual care,” she says. “I am making gains every day physically, mentally and emotionally. My therapists can see what I’m doing and give me direction,” she adds.  Beth says in the future she would like to see a hybrid model of in-person and virtual care.”

“The pandemic provided the opportunity to fast track virtual care and now we need to ensure that it remains a significant part of the health care system,” said Dr. Sacha Bhatia, Cardiologist, Women’s College Hospital and University Health Network. “Currently we have momentum with virtual care, and there are significant opportunities to facilitate care for people living with heart conditions, stroke or vascular cognitive impairment. 

Since the pandemic broke out, Heart & Stroke has created a public guide for engaging in effective and efficient virtual healthcare sessions. Additionally, it has integrated virtual care into all its stroke guidelines, created a toolkit for clinicians treating stroke, and is working on a companion toolkit for clinicians treating heart conditions. 

Patrice Lindsay, Heart & Stroke’s director, health systems change, says the need to support people living with chronic conditions is more urgent than ever. “Heart & Stroke is working collaboratively with many healthcare groups to support people with our conditions through the pandemic.” says Lindsay. “To really have impact in this area we are asking provincial governments to invest resources and adopt policies to facilitate improved, increased and equitable access to virtual care.” 

The survey also found that people living with heart disease and stroke were surprised at how well they responded with resiliency and adaptability to the pandemic.  Resiliency, the fighting spirit of people living with conditions, fuels the creative concept of the new Heart & Stroke call to action. Titled Beat as One this powerful messaging sheds light on the many faces of heart disease and stroke and the urgent need to fuel the critical changes needed to save lives from these devastating conditions.  
About the survey:  Approximately 1200 people in Canada took the COVID-19 Heart & Stroke Impact survey online between May 8 and May 31, 2020.   A total of 1052 people fully completed the survey, 804 people with conditions, and 248 caregivers.

For more information and to book an interview with a healthcare expert or a person with lived experience please contact:

Teresa Roncon
Sr. Manager, Communications
cell:   416-937-5307

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 prevent disease, save lives and promote recovery through research, health promotion and public policy.