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The Heart of the Matter: Palliative Care in Heart Failure

Megan Rau HeadshotApproximately 5.7 million U.S. adults have heart failure (HF), and 1 in 5 individuals over age 40 will develop HF in their lifetimes. HF is accompanied by many symptoms – including fatigue, shortness of breath, mood changes, pain, and anorexia. Among older adults with HF, these symptoms are compounded by mobility limitations, frailty, and other co-morbidities. Palliative Care is an optimal way to address symptoms while concurrently treating with disease-modifying interventions (Figure 1).

 

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Figure 1. Schematic Depiction of Comprehensive Heart Failure Care. 

Palliative care is defined by the World Health Organization as “an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problem associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems, physical, psychosocial and spiritual…Palliative care is applicable early in the course of illness, in conjunction with other therapies that are intended to prolong life.”

Palliative care can help HF patients in several ways. First, the palliative care team can work with a patient’s cardiologist in proactively treating symptoms as they develop over the course of the illness and during times of exacerbations. While the underlying cause of these symptoms is not completely understood, hypotheses suggest that physiological changes contribute to symptom burden (Figure 2).

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Figure 2. Schematic Etiology of Heart Failure Symptoms.  

One of the most common symptoms with heart failure is dyspnea, and a patient’s cardiologist and palliative care clinician may work together to treat dyspnea by using diuretics to optimize fluid status, teaching breathing techniques, and (in advanced disease) administering a low dose opioid such as morphine to alleviate shortness of breath. These treatments have the unified goal of improving a patient’s quality of life.

Second, palliative care assists with effective communication between patients and clinicians in the form of advanced care planning – including establishing a health care proxy, completing advanced directives, discussing goals of care, and having end of life conversations regarding when to stop certain interventions. Advanced care planning discussions help to ensure patients’ preferences for what is most important in their care are met.

Goodlin et al provide examples of language clinicians may use to eliciting these preferences, such as “What treatment we recommend depends on your medical condition, but also on what approach to care you prefer and what is important to you at this point in your life”. This statement allows a platform for patients to express their wishes and what quality of life means to them. Their clinician is then able to recommend treatments that align with their goals and preferences.

HF is a common disease with a dynamic trajectory due to periods of exacerbation and recovery. It is imperative that cardiologists and palliative care clinicians work together to provide disease-modifying interventions while concurrently treating symptoms and developing advanced care plans with patients.

For more information on Palliative Care in Heart Failure visit the following websites:

 

By: Megan E. Rau, MD, MPH

Dr. Rau is a practicing physician at NYU Langone Health who specializes in geriatrics and palliative care & hospice. 

Frailty Matters

dodson%20headshotFrailty (a state of increased vulnerability to physiologic stressors) is common in older adults. Frailty can be measured in several ways, including by a simple test such as walking speed or more thorough criteria. The geriatrics community has long recognized that frailty predicts hospitalization, functional decline, and death. Cardiologists are increasingly recognizing the importance of frailty as well: for example, in predicting outcomes after cardiac surgery and myocardial infarction.

Building on this work, we recently published a paper in JACC: Cardiovascular Interventions that highlighted the role of frailty in predicting bleeding among cardiac patients with myocardial infarction in the ACTION registry. While the link may not seem intuitive, there are a number of reasons frailty may confer bleeding risk, including poor vascular integrity, altered hemostatic factors, and issues related to treatments (e.g. overdosing of anticoagulants).

There were several key findings from our work: first, frailty increased bleeding risk by 50%; second, this was only seen in patients undergoing cardiac catheterization; third, the use of strategies that may reduce bleeding (radial access, and proper dosing of anticoagulant medications) was relatively low. The findings in this large cohort largely confirmed what had been shown previously in smaller studies.

I think there are several actionable steps from this work. First, frailty matters – and we should start measuring it.  Our study used a combination of variables abstracted from the medical record, which may have under-detected the true prevalence of frailty. Walking speed, an alternative measure of frailty, can be easily obtained in the hospital on most patients and is easily reproducible. Second, for frail patients, bleeding avoidance strategies are critical. For example, radial access was only used in only 1 in 4 frail patients in our study. Randomized trials in older adults have used higher rates of radial access and have found less bleeding. So this seems to be one relatively straightforward way to improve outcomes in our frail patients.

 

By: John Dodson, MD, MPH


For more information on frailty, a frailty infographic is posted on our “Infographics” page. 

“I Had No Choice”: Perspectives from Heart Attack Patients on Coronary Interventional Procedures

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Photo taken at Boston Public Garden

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) 2018 Annual Scientific Meeting that was held in Boston, MA this year with the theme centralized around “The Purpose of Longer Lives.” GSA is one of the oldest and largest interdisciplinary organizations that is well-attended nationally by scientists, clinicians, and students who all have one thing in common: a passion for gerontology research.

Aside from connecting with many respectable researchers in the field, I also had the opportunity to present findings from our qualitative research focusing on decisional needs among older adults with cardiovascular disease. Specifically, our study sought to investigate the perspectives of older adults on coronary interventional procedures after their hospitalization for acute myocardial infarction (otherwise known as AMI, or heart attack). In recent decades, older adults have been undergoing more coronary revascularization procedures for AMI (stent placements and coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG)); consequently, procedure-related risks are more common. Moreover, time-sensitive settings during AMI at times do not allow for easy shared decision-making (SDM) discussions with their clinicians to detail these risks. Our study therefore was interested in probing further into AMI patients’ decision-making process – and to identify what factors, exactly, that led them to decide on whether or not to undergo a coronary revascularization procedure.

Based on our preliminary research from 15 patients who had been hospitalized with AMI and discharged home, the main themes that emerged were as follows:

  1. Procedural risks are perceived to be minimal when compared to perceived benefits.

Perceived procedural risks – which were generally described to be stroke, bleeding, and death – were viewed minimally when compared to the benefits. When asked to list the perceived benefits, patients mentioned “living a healthy life,” “no pains,” and “prevention of future heart attacks.”

  1. Some respondents reported that the alternative to a procedure was death.

“I would not have come to the hospital if I wanted to commit suicide,” stated one respondent. While this may be seemingly viewed as a more extreme perception of the alternative to the procedure, this theme was seen across several respondents. For example, another said, “That [turning down the procedure] didn’t enter my mind at all. In fact, I would’ve been dead at this point.” Most participants viewed that they “had no choice,” stating that they would not have been alive without the interventional procedure, and as a result, viewed the procedure was an absolute necessity.

  1. Participants place a high level of trust in their cardiologists when making decisions.

A majority of respondents revealed that faith in the physician was also a major factor contributing to their decision-making process—regardless of how long they have known their cardiologist. While one participant was loyal to their outpatient cardiologist of 28 years, others put an equal amount of trust in the interventional cardiologist whom they met on the same day of the procedure. One respondent, who was unconscious during her episode, stated: “I wasn’t thinking straight, but I had total belief that the doctors were going to take care of me.”

  1. Receiving procedural information, before or after the procedure, could aid in a better overall satisfaction of the experience.

All participants expressed that it was very important for them to understand their heart disease and associated procedures – even if it is after the procedure was completed. This was especially predominant among participants who had an ST-elevation MI (STEMI) who underwent their procedure rapidly. Some suggestions on how this could be achieved include providing a copy of the angiogram results, providing pamphlets and brochures, and sending medical personnel to explain the procedure more in-depth immediately pre-procedure, or during early recovery.

  1. All participants highly value what is perceived to be SDM.

All of our respondents, regardless of whether or not they have received a procedure, expressed a desire to have a discussion with their clinicians regarding their treatment options and the risks and benefits of a procedure.

Based on our findings, SDM has the potential to better overall patient knowledge and satisfaction with care. SDM is probably most applicable in the setting of non-ST segment AMI (NSTEMI) where there is time for more informed discussions. Notably, NSTEMI is the most common AMI presentation among older adults. We believe our work supports the future utilization of SDM in clinical practice, and perhaps, a future tool designed to better expedite the SDM process in the inpatient setting.

 

By: Jenny Summapund, MA

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Patient Priorities Care: State of the Art

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society published 3 related articles on redesigning healthcare around patient priorities, which I’ve linked to below. This work represents the leading edge of incorporating patient priorities into decision making for older adults. The rationale (previously discussed on this blog here, here, and here) is that for many older adults, the applicability of disease-specific guidelines are unclear; many of our therapies (in cardiology and elsewhere) were studied in relatively young patients with few comorbidities. In the setting of limited evidence, the concept of patient priorities care therefore emphasizes eliciting what matters most to patients – and designing care plans around specific, actionable goals.

Patient priorities care in practice is complex since it requires training of clinicians and support staff, engagement of patients, and streamlining of health information technology, all within our current time-limited healthcare environment. Nonetheless, the pilot studies by Naik et al. and Blaum et al. demonstrate that this care model can be effectively implemented in practice. The accompanying editorial by Applegate et al., which states that “Clinical guidelines could be revised to integrate the tradeoffs between multimorbidity, functional status, and polypharmacy in making management decisions” represents a longstanding principle of geriatrics which appears to be gaining traction in other fields (including cardiology).

Links below:
Naik et al., “Development of a Clinically-Feasible Process for Identifying Patient Health Priorities.”

Blaum et al., “Feasibility of Implementing Patient Priorities Care for Patients with Multiple Chronic Conditions.”

Applegate et al. “Implementing ‘Patient-Centered Care’: A Revolutionary Change in Health Care Delivery.”

 

By: John Dodson, MD, MPH

Hearing Loss and Heart Failure

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Photo credit: Shutterstock

At first glance, hearing impairment and heart disease seem to have very little in common. However, the relationship has been hypothesized since the 1960’s, and more recently has been established in epidemiologic studies – with a particular emphasis on heart failure. For example, a recent study by Sterling et al. examined patients in the cross-sectional NHANES Survey aged ≥70 years with a diagnosis of heart failure. The authors described the percentage with quantifiable hearing loss based on pure-tone audiometry (considered the gold standard test).

The main findings: 74% of patients with heart failure had some degree of hearing loss, which was significantly higher than those without heart failure (63%). Further, only 16% of heart failure patients wore hearing aids. Thus there was a disconnect between the burden of hearing loss, and use of a strategy (hearing aids) with proven effectiveness.

Why does this matter? According to the authors: “since patients with HF [heart failure] are frequently in noisy hospitals and clinics where they receive myriad instructions about disease management, it seems likely that untreated hearing loss could impair patient-physician communication and ultimately HF self-care.” After my recent two weeks attending on the inpatient cardiology service, I concur. We are constantly expecting our patients to provide us an accurate history, comprehend diagnostic test results, and adhere to discharge plans, all of which may be affected by hearing impairment.

What are the solutions? The first is to increase identification of hearing impairment through screening – and with advances in technology, I’d predict this can soon be easily done at the bedside with portable electronic devices. The second is to make hearing aids more accessible, including over-the-counter purchases – and recently there has been some notable advocacy work advancing laws to increase access. Through these two simple strategies, we may be able to make meaningful improvements in the health of our older cardiac patients.