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Headlines Published on 15 September 2005

Title Europeans woefully unaware of heart failure risks, study reveals

The overwhelming majority of Europeans surveyed underestimate or misunderstand the threat of heart failure, say the researchers behind a nine-country study. The big challenge they now face will be to better educate the public about the problem in order to improve citizens’ health and, from that, their quality of life.

Better awareness and, thus, early diagnosis of heart failure could save thousands of European lives. © PhotoDisc
Better awareness and, thus, early diagnosis of heart failure could save thousands of European lives.
© PhotoDisc
Today, around 14 million people in Europe suffer from a heart condition or failure and this number is forecast to increase to 30 million by 2020, according to the group behind the study. Nearly 40% of heart failure patients will die within one year of first hospitalisation and only 25% of men and 38% of women will survive more than five years following diagnosis.

With these facts as stark reminders of what is at stake with heart failure, the recent findings of the public awareness survey on the subject are timely. Carried out by SHAPE (Study on Heart failure Awareness and Perception in Europe), the research reveals, in the words of its lead author, a “woeful and worrying” level of ignorance. The study’s findings were recently published in the European Heart Journal, the official journal of the European Society of Cardiology.

Although almost 90% of people from the nine surveyed countries – France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the UK – said they had heard of heart failure (HF), only 3% could identify the condition from a description of typical symptoms. This was despite 6% saying they had someone in their family with HF.

This poor awareness is putting lives at risk, according to the study’s lead author Dr Willem Remme, professor of medicine and director of the Sticares Cardiovascular Research Foundation, based in Rhoon, The Netherlands. “It has serious implications for individuals and for public health throughout Europe. If the public don't understand how common and … life-threatening this condition is, then they are not likely to seek medical help early, and they are also unlikely to demand appropriate measures from healthcare providers,” he noted in a press statement.

This was the first study of its kind to gauge awareness of HF among the general public in Europe. A total of 7 958 people in two age groups (25-45 year olds and 65-85 year olds) responded from the nearly 48 000 households randomly contacted across Europe. Participants answered 32 questions ranging from what they know about the disease to what can be done about it.

“Pretty depressing” signs
The results not only showed that most of the public taking part could not recognise the signs of HF, but that they also had major misconceptions about the condition. For example, when asked how seriously they should take such symptoms as breathlessness, tiredness or swollen ankles, only 29% thought these represented a severe complaint. This, according to the authors, is a serious mistake that could lead to delayed diagnosis of HF.

Given a list of conditions, only 9% of respondents could correctly identify HF as the biggest healthcare cost for governments – 40% said cancer and 27% HIV. In fact, HF consumes 2-2.5% of the total European healthcare budget, with 70% of that going on hospital admission.

“These results are pretty depressing," said Dr Remme, who is also chairman of SHAPE, which was established in 2002 by an independent group of medical specialists. "Ignorance of the symptoms and of what can be done to prevent and treat the condition could contribute unnecessarily to poor quality of life in tens of thousands of patients and thousands of premature deaths … [which places] a heavy burden on health systems,” he claimed.

"We urge everyone to educate themselves about early signs that may mean risk of heart failure and see your doctor in good time. A tremendous amount can now be done with modern drugs and devices, together with lifestyle changes, to prevent the condition, to improve the quality of life for those who have HF and to reduce the need for costly hospital admission.”

SHAPE will soon start phase two of the project – a campaign to educate family doctors and the public – aimed at boosting healthcare for this condition. Family doctors are being targeted following the discovery, in a parallel study, that they also lack knowledge about HF, explains Remme. He hopes to be able to present results from this phase in about two years.

Source:  MW Communications, SHAPE

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