The lifesaver Aussies can’t access

SEVEN in 10 heart attack victims are not accessing cardiac rehabilitation programs that could save their lives.

As a result 20,000 Australians a year go on to have a second heart attack that could have been prevented if they received help changing their diet, improving their exercise and adhering to their medication.

Those who undertake the courses are 40 per cent less likely to be re-admitted to hospital and 25 per cent less likely to die from a second heart attack.

There is no systematic national evaluation of the 500 rehabilitation programs on offer around the country and it is unclear whether those who do attend get the best service.

A massive 20,000 Aussies a year have a second heart attack.
A massive 20,000 Aussies a year have a second heart attack.

That is why the Heart Foundation is calling for federal funding for a national audit of the programs and for extra funding to double participation rates from one in three to two in three heart attack victims.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has responded to our call for action and is writing to every state to ask them to work together to set up registries for cardiac rehabilitation programs.

"Our Government welcomes News Corp's engagement on this important health issue," he said.

It costs governments on average just $1000 for each person to undertake a cardiac rehabilitation course over a number of weeks while a repeat heart attack costs the health system $30,000.

Seven in 10 Australians miss out on cardiac rehab. Picture: Supplied
Seven in 10 Australians miss out on cardiac rehab. Picture: Supplied

US research shows one in 10 people who have a heart attack go on to have a second one within a year.

Annual Heart Foundation surveys of Australians who have had a heart attack in the last five years have found one in three people have had two or more heart attacks.

A key reason people miss out on this vital care is that some doctors never refer patients to the free programs even though medical guidelines say all people should be referred to them.

Cardiologists who save patients' lives by inserting a stent to open a blocked artery sometimes tell them they are "fixed", said Professor Robyn Gallagher the president of the Australian Cardiovascular Health and Rehabilitation Association.

"They are not adhering to the guidelines, in 2016 the Medical Journal of Australia said all cardiac patients should be referred to rehabilitation," Professor Gallagher said.

Accessing the services can also be a lottery depending on your postcode with patients living in the bush least likely to find an easily accessible service.

Many of the services are hospital-based which makes them very hard for people with busy lives and caring responsibilities to access.

An investigation by News Corp Australia has found there are waiting lists of more than four weeks for those few who do get into rehabilitation programs.

One third of the 57,000 heart attacks that occur each year are patients having a second or third heart episode and better access to rehabilitation would reduce that toll.

News Corp Australia and the Heart Foundation's #ShowSomeTicker campaign, which has focused attention on heart disease as Australia's leading cause of death, last week won bipartisan support for a new Medicare-funded heart health check for Australians at risk.

Today we are asking state and federal governments to help make secondary heart attacks history by improving new funding for cardiac rehabilitation.

As a first step the Heart Foundation wants governments to fund an annual audit of cardiac rehabilitation programs to determine how many patients are referred to and complete them and work out what initiatives work best at preventing future heart attacks.

Professor Gallagher said the audit should check rates of referral, waiting times, completion rates, depression and smoking rates of patients, improvement in ability to exercise, weight loss, blood pressure results, whether patients taking medications prescribed and whether they are referred to ongoing services after the program ends.

Patients are dying because they can’t access cardiac rehab. Picture: News Corp
Patients are dying because they can’t access cardiac rehab. Picture: News Corp

An Australian developed rehabilitation program called COACH which is delivered by nurses, dietitians and pharmacists over the phone and costs just $820 per person was found to cut deaths by 5.1 per cent over a six-year period, and slashed hospital costs by $12,115 per coached patient.

However, it is only available in Queensland, one local health district in NSW and to members of health fund BUPA.

Professor Gallagher said without access to rehabilitation heart attack victims are not getting the help they need to quit smoking, improve their diet and exercise and take the medications that limit the chances of a second heart attack.

As a result nearly one in four of these people will die from their heart problem.