Northumberland Primary Care Network screening patients in trial that aims to reduce stroke risk

Patients at a group of Northumberland GP practices have been invited to take part in a trial that could reduce their risk of strokes and heart attacks.

Northumbria Primary Care has identified patients in some of their Northumberland practices who are over the age of 70 and at a higher risk of atrial fibrillation (AF) to take part.

Northumbria Primary Care, which is a wholly owned not-for-profit subsidiary of Northumbria Healthcare, manages ten practices across Northumberland and North Tyneside. In April 2022, five Northumberland practices came together to form their own Primary Care Network (PCN). Northumbria Primary Care’s Northumberland PCN has volunteered to take part in the nationwide trial.

The trial, called SAFER, is important as many people who have atrial fibrillation are not aware of it due to a lack of symptoms. The condition is more prevalent in people over the age of 70 and is linked to an increased risk of serious medical conditions like strokes, heart attacks and dementia, with roughly 10% of strokes occurring in those with undetected atrial fibrillation.

Once a diagnosis has been made, patients can be treated with blood thinning medication which will reduce the risk of serious medical problems.

However, it is not known whether the potential benefits of screening outweigh the potential harms, such as serious bleeding as a result of the blood thinning medication. Therefore, it is important to test screening in a trial where some participants will receive screening, while others do not.

Patients who are offered screening will provide a remote reading using a small hand-held ECG device four times a day over the course of three weeks. The device monitors a patient’s heart rhythm and transmits the data to the research team automatically.

Irregularities are flagged by an algorithm as being possible atrial fibrillation and are then reviewed by a cardiologist. By taking regular readings over a three-week period, Patients can give a more accurate picture of their heart health than through an isolated ECG.

The SAFER trial is funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) and is operated by a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge.

Dr Justine Norman, associate medical director at Northumbria Primary Care, said:

“We’re really excited to participate in the SAFER trial. Not only are we able to contribute to a brilliant research project, but we’re also able to reduce patient risk by diagnosing them with atrial fibrillation before they experience a serious health condition.

“Screening will help us diagnose patients with atrial fibrillation sooner, meaning that we can treat them and reduce their risk of experiencing a serious medical condition. This trial has the potential to save lives and improve quality of life for some of our patients, allowing them to stay healthier for longer.”

Jonathan Mant, Professor of Primary Care Research and chief investigator on the SAFER trial, University of Cambridge said:

“We’re really optimistic about the huge impact this trial could have on reducing the risk of life-threatening medical conditions like strokes that some patients face. This trial wouldn’t be possible without organisations like Northumbria Primary Care and their patients facilitating it. Their cooperation will provide us with important data that will allow us to continue our research and improve the lives of people across the country.

“By determining whether or not screening for atrial fibrillation is worth doing, this trial will provide important information both for NHS policymakers, and also for individuals wondering whether or not to use commercially available devices that can detect atrial fibrillation”

Eligible patients will be contacted by their practice to participate in the trial if they match the inclusion criteria. Patients are not able to volunteer for this trial if they have not been contacted directly. 

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