Many fewer people recovering from heart operations or treatment participated in cardiac rehabilitation programmes during 2020, the charity the British Heart Foundation (BHF) has warned, even though they can be vital in helping people get back to full health and fitness.
The BHF’s National Audit of Cardiac Rehab report concluded that 12,400 fewer people took part in cardiac rehabilitation programmes during 2020 than in 2019.
This was mostly because community-based programmes were often scrapped or cut back during the various lockdowns and cardiac nurses were redeployed to help the NHS respond to the pressures of the pandemic.
Almost 80% of cardiac rehab programmes across England, Northern Ireland and Wales had some or all of their team redeployed from January to December 2020, the report highlighted.
More than a tenth (12%) of programmes ceased to run completely because of staff redeployment. About 67% reported key members of their team being redeployed, which limited the support available for cardiac rehab services.
The greatest fall in participation was seen among ethnic minority groups, where 11% fewer patients took up cardiac rehabilitation in 2020 compared to 2019.
Heart health and Covid-19
Participation among women and men fell at broadly similar rates, by 8% in men and nearly 6% in female heart patients.
A knock-on effect of all this was a reduction in the number of people being referred to, taking up, and completing cardiac rehab.
Only around 21% of programmes were unaffected by redeployment, although these still would have been affected by the reduced patient throughput because of Covid-19 restrictions and reduced cardiology referrals, the BHF said.
The implications of not participating in the cardiac rehab following a cardiac event could be life threatening, the charity warned.
It highlighted research suggesting that cardiac rehab reduces the risk of premature death by a quarter and lowers hospital admissions by around a fifth. It also reduces the chances of a further serious heart-related illness.
The pandemic also saw a major shift in the way people were accessing cardiac rehabilitation, with home-based delivery now overtaking group delivery as the dominant mode of cardiac rehab.
Home-based cardiac rehab only made up 16% of delivery modes prior to the pandemic, but had increased to 76%. Meanwhile, group-based cardiac rehab fell from 72% to 16% from 2019 to 2020.
Ruth Goss, senior cardiac nurse at the BHF, said: “These findings are further evidence of the significant knock-on impact the pandemic is having on cardiac care. Cardiac rehab is a vital part of recovery for many cardiac patients. Whilst it is a welcome step in the right direction to see innovation that allows those who can receive cardiac rehab in their own home, it is concerning to see such a large overall drop, and that ethnic minority groups appear to face disproportionately reduced access to cardiac rehab.”
Professor Patrick Doherty, director of the NACR report, added: “It’s hugely important that everyone who needs cardiac rehab is able to access it. However, these worrying figures show that, once again, people who may need cardiac rehab the most aren’t always attending.”