Thousands of people are at risk of avoidable heart attacks and strokes, experts have warned, after nearly 500,000 people in England, Scotland and Wales missed out on starting blood pressure-lowering drugs during the pandemic.
Researchers said that thousands of people could suffer a preventable cardiovascular event because they did not start taking vital medications known to stave off deadly heart and circulatory diseases amid the Covid related disruption to healthcare.
Using data on routinely dispensed prescriptions in England, Scotland and Wales, scientists found 491,306 fewer people than expected began taking blood pressure-lowering medication between March 2020 and the end of July 2021. The findings were published in the journal Nature Medicine.
The stark figures highlight the need to identify and treat people so they can avoid developing life-threatening conditions, according to researchers at the British Heart Foundation (BHF) data science centre at Health Data Research UK.
The lead author, Prof Reecha Sofat, associate director at the BHF’s data science centre and Breckenridge chair of clinical pharmacology at the University of Liverpool, said: “Measures to prevent infection spread were necessary and undoubtedly saved lives.
“The NHS has already taken important and positive steps towards identifying people with high blood pressure as early as possible. However, we need this focus to be sustained in the long term to prevent any increase in heart attacks and strokes which will add to a healthcare system already under extreme pressure.”
As part of the research supported by the BHF, the experts looked at 1.32bn records of medication dispensed to 15.8 million people between 1 April 2018 and 31 July 2021.
They found 491,306 fewer people than expected started taking blood pressure-lowering medication between March 2020 and July 2021, including 402,448 in England, 60,033 in Scotland and 28,825 in Wales.
“Despite the incredible work done by NHS staff, our data show that we’re still not identifying people with cardiovascular risk factors at the same rate as we were before the pandemic,” said Sofat.
The researchers estimate that if these individuals’ high blood pressure remained untreated, it could lead to more than 13,500 additional cardiovascular events, including more than 2,000 heart attacks and 3,000 strokes.
“Yet again we’re seeing clear evidence of the major disruption to healthcare people in the UK experienced during the Covid pandemic,” said Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the BHF and a consultant cardiologist. “But it’s not too late to limit the damage.
“These findings demonstrate how getting heart healthcare back on track can curb the additional strain that untreated risk factors such as high blood pressure would otherwise place on the NHS.”
However, some experts said the findings were actually reassuring.
Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, emeritus professor of statistics at the University of Cambridge, who was not involved with the study, said he believed the predicted number of extra cardiovascular events was not “a big number”.
The research also implied that disruption to heart healthcare was only playing a “negligible role” in the recent increase in excess deaths, he added.
“This excellent study is surprisingly reassuring. Following the disrupted preventive healthcare over the pandemic, they predict over 2,000 extra heart attacks and 3,000 extra strokes, which may sound bad, but this assumes the individuals remain untreated and covers their whole lives.
“This comes out at perhaps 100 extra heart attacks a year, or two a week, which is not a big number, especially when compared to the 100,000 annual hospital admissions for heart attacks reported by the British Heart Foundation.”