The University of Liverpool researchers have found that nearly 500,000 people missed out on starting medication for hypertension during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The research illuminated that thousands of people could suffer an avoidable heart attack or stroke due to delays in starting medication for hypertension known to reduce heart and circulatory diseases.
The reduced access to healthcare services during the COVID-19 pandemic meant millions of people missed out on life-changing diagnoses for a range of diseases. This also affected prescribing behaviours.
The research is published in Nature Medicine.
The importance of medication for hypertension in disease prevention
Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, rarely has noticeable symptoms. However, if left untreated, it increases the risk of complications such as heart attacks and strokes. Around a third of adults in the UK have hypertension, this figure could be larger as many people may not realise it.
The scientists used data on routinely dispensed prescriptions in England, Scotland and Wales, finding that 491,306 fewer people than expected started taking medications for hypertension between March 2020 and the end of July 2021.
If these individuals’ hypertension remains untreated over their lifetime, the researchers estimate that this could result in over 13,500 additional cardiovascular events, including over 2,000 heart attacks and 3,000 strokes.
Lead author Professor Reecha Sofat, Breckenridge Chair of Clinical Pharmacology at the University of Liverpool and Associate Director at the BHF Data Science Centre, warned: “Measures to prevent infection spread were necessary and undoubtedly saved lives. The NHS has already taken important and positive steps towards identifying people with high blood pressure as early as possible. However, we need this focus to be sustained in the long-term to prevent any increase in heart attacks and strokes which will add to a healthcare system already under extreme pressure.”
The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on disease diagnosis
The researchers analysed 1.32 billion records of medications dispensed to 15.8 million people in England, Scotland and Wales between 1st April 2018 and 31st July 2019 to understand the impact of COVID-19.
The findings from the first half of 2021 illuminated that 27,070 fewer people started to take medications for hypertension each month compared with 2019. During the same period, they found that 16,744 fewer people started taking medication to reduce levels of fat or cholesterol in their blood each month.
The examination highlighted that it is critical that individuals who missed starting their medication for hypertension be monitored to reduce their cardiovascular risk. By doing this within five years, just over 2,700 cardiovascular events would be reduced.
Professor Sofat added: “Despite the incredible work done by NHS staff, our data show that we’re still not identifying people with cardiovascular risk factors at the same rate as we were before the pandemic.
“Detecting these risk factors early and beginning medication where appropriate is crucial to managing them, helping more people to avoid a preventable heart attack or stroke so they can live in good health for longer.”
Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation and consultant cardiologist, said: “Yet again we’re seeing clear evidence of the major disruption to healthcare people in the UK experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“But it’s not too late to limit the damage. These findings demonstrate how getting heart healthcare back on track can curb the additional strain that untreated risk factors such as high blood pressure would otherwise place on the NHS.
“We need to make it easier and more accessible for everyone to know their numbers – particularly their blood pressure and cholesterol. This means empowering people to access the help they need when they need it so they can be supported to manage their health.”