Above average numbers of deaths from heart disease that began in the pandemic are continuing because of ambulance delays, waiting lists and inaccessible care, the British Heart Foundation has warned.
A report calling for heart care to be prioritised says since the pandemic began, there have been just over 30,000 excess deaths involving heart disease – more than 230 additional deaths a week – above what would be expected.
Driving the ongoing surge is significant and widespread disruption to heart care services in England, the charity said with 350,000 people now waiting for time-sensitive cardiac treatment.
In addition, average ambulance response times for suspected heart attacks have risen to 48 minutes, the report found.
Unacceptably long waits for diagnosis and treatment of conditions like coronary heart disease and abnormal heart rhythms are increasing the risk of permanent heart damage and death, the BHF warned.
The report includes modelling from NHS England which suggests that the decline in blood pressure management since the pandemic began could lead to an extra 11,190 heart attacks and 16,702 additional strokes over three years.
And there are millions of missing heart patients, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, who have struggled to access care for conditions like hypertension, the report said.
Examples included in the report include a 50-year-old man who had to wait for 40 minutes in a supermarket car park while having a heart attack and losing consciousness; and a 45-year-old woman with a family history of heart disease who has waited nearly two months to be seen at a rapid access clinic after seeing her GP with chest pain and breathlessness.
BHF chief executive Dr Charmaine Griffiths said: ‘It is devastating that the ongoing and extreme disruption to heart care has meant that 30,000 more families have lost a loved one.
‘Today many hundreds of thousands of people fear that their heart condition could get worse before they get treatment – potentially stopping them from working or enjoying a full life.
‘Many more are completely unaware they now have a condition putting them at a greater risk of early death from a heart attack or stroke.’
BHF associate medical director Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan said: ‘Far too many people continue to face long waits for time-sensitive heart care, putting them at higher risk of becoming more unwell the longer they wait with potentially devastating consequences.
‘Delays on such an extreme scale are likely leading to avoidable emergency admissions, permanent heart damage, disability from heart failure, and early death.’
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘While Covid has inevitably had an impact with fewer people coming forward for care, there has been a significant increase in referrals for cardiac care over the last year and staff are already making significant progress on the longest waiters – many of whom are cardiac patients – with the number of people waiting more than 18 months 60% lower in August compared to the same month last year.
‘Our national elective recovery plan set out a comprehensive blueprint for tackling backlogs and local teams are working hard to restore their cardiac services to pre-pandemic levels while maintaining a focus on preventing heart disease in the first place.’