Can the high-intensity care given acutely ill, high-risk U.S. patients with cardiac disease actually harm them?

Results from an unusual analysis of cardiology-meeting times seem to suggest that sobering possibility. Patient outcomes improved when thousands of high-level, American cardiologists left their practices for a few days each year to attend either of the two major U.S. heart disease meetings.

Researchers led by Dr. Anupam B. Jena of Harvard University, Boston, used Medicare data to examine mortality rates among patients hospitalized for cardiac arrest, heart failure, or acute myocardial infarction during 2002-2011. They focused on patients admitted during the annual meetings of the American College of Cardiology (usually in March) or the American Heart Association (during November).

As controls in their case-control analyses, they used data from patients admitted on similar days of the week during the 3 weeks immediately before or after these two meetings. This gave them roughly 11,000 total patients with cardiac arrest, nearly 134,000 with heart failure, and about 60,000 with acute MI – about 14% of patients in each disease category admitted during a meeting and the other 86% (controls) admitted when there was no meeting.

The results showed some statistically significant differences indicating that patients did better during the meetings, presumably when many cardiologists were away from their hospitals. These associations only occurred at teaching hospitals and among patients at high risk for inpatient mortality. The investigators saw no statistically significant differences, after adjustment, in mortality during meetings among patients treated at nonteaching hospitals or among patients with a low risk for inpatient mortality.

In analyses that adjusted for baseline differences in risk factors, the 30-day mortality rate for patients admitted to teaching hospitals with cardiac arrest was 69% during control dates and 59% during the meetings. Thirty-day mortality for patients admitted with heart failure was 25% during control dates and 18% during the meetings, researchers reported in an article published online on Dec. 22 ( JAMA Intern. Med. 2014 [doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.6781 ]).

Although 30-day mortality among patients admitted with an acute MI did not differ significantly at teaching hospitals between patients who presented during a major meeting and those who did not, the results showed that these similar mortality rates were achieved despite a statistically significant difference in the rate of percutaneous coronary interventions (PCI) that patients received: During the major meetings, 21% of the acute MI patients underwent PCI, but when a meeting was not in progress, the PCI rate jumped to 28% of all acute MI patients.

“One explanation for these findings is that the intensity of care provided during meeting dates is lower, and that for high-risk patients with cardiovascular disease, the harms of this care may unexpectedly outweigh the benefits,” Dr. Jena concluded.

It’s a remarkable and surprising finding, but can it be taken seriously? At least one expert said yes, at least seriously enough to warrant further study and consideration.

An editor’s note published with the new report suggested a plausible explanation for the findings is that “more interventions in high-risk patients with heart failure and cardiac arrest leads to higher mortality.” In her note, Dr. Rita F. Redberg , a cardiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and editor of JAMA Internal Medicine, concluded, “It is reassuring that patient outcomes do not suffer while many cardiologists are away. More important, this analysis may help us to understand how we could lower mortality throughout the year.”

It will be interesting to see if anyone takes up the challenge to further explore this relationship and tries to find ways to apply throughout the year the protective effect of having fewer teaching-hospital cardiologists around. If a drug had this beneficial effect on mortality, the pharmaceutical industry would be all over it.

mzoler@frontlinemedcom.com 
On Twitter @mitchelzoler

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