'Distressing' drop in people seeking care for heart attacks in Canada, data suggests

New data analyzed by Heart & Stroke and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society suggests fewer people in Canada are seeking care for serious heart attacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data shows a 30% drop in emergency room visits between March 16 and April 12 compared to same time last year

Anyone with signs of heart attack or stroke is urged to seek immediate medical attention, including during the pandemic. (Talia Ricci/CBC )

New data suggests fewer people in Canada are seeking care for serious heart attacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Heart & Stroke and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society analyzed data from Ontario cardiac centres and found an unusually low number of people turning up at the hospital with the most serious type of heart attack, known as a STEMI.

They found a nearly 30 per cent drop in emergency department visits between March 16 and April 12 compared to the same period last year. Vancouver Coastal Health saw an approximately 40 per cent drop in STEMI patients during a similar time period.

Researchers say it's unlikely the number of serious heart attacks has suddenly plummeted. They worry heart patients are at risk of greater disability or death because they may be avoiding care for fear of being exposed to COVID-19.

WATCH | Doctors worry about dramatic drop in ER visits across Canada:

Dramatic drop in ER visits during COVID-19 pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 1:59
Concerns about COVID-19 are stopping people from going to the emergency room with other conditions, including heart attacks and strokes.

Society president Dr. Andrew Krahn called the findings "distressing" and urged anyone with signs of heart attack and stroke to seek immediate medical attention.

Krahn said the empty emergency departments are a worry for health-care providers like him because they don't mean people are well. Rather, they mean people are staying home who need urgent medical attention for a variety of reasons.

"I'm talking about heart conditions," Krahn said. "But we know for instance there are more patients who are suffering strokes at home and don't come to attention. And kidney failure where they come in and by the time they get in they need dialysis."

He said the health-care system has precautions in place to test people for COVID-19 and to protect patients, and that it is prepared to respond to life-threatening medical issues during the pandemic.

Anne Simard, chief mission and research officer at Heart & Stroke, says anyone living with a chronic condition such as high blood pressure, heart disease or stroke with new or worsening symptoms should seek urgent medical treatment.

"We know everyone is concerned given the pandemic, but if these other serious issues are not treated and managed, people can become critically ill or worse," Simard said in a release.

The signs of stroke can be remembered with the FAST acronym:

  • Is the Face drooping?
  • Can you raise both Arms?
  • Is Speech slurred or jumbled?
  • If so, it's Time to call 911.

Signs of a heart attack include chest pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain; sweating; discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, arms, or upper back; nausea; shortness of breath; and light-headedness.

With files from CBC's Nicole Ireland

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