Solicitor Rosie Blacker writes about recent research which suggests that lives could be saved if the early warning signs of heart attacks are more routinely picked up.
Most of us have seen in films and television programmes dramatic depictions of a heart attack and know that it can be sudden and fatal in many instances. It is therefore perhaps surprising to hear that it has been reported recently that up to 1 in 6 people who died of a heart attack in English hospitals may have had early warning signs of the risk of heart attack missed in the weeks prior to their death.
The NHS Choices website confirms that a heart attack (otherwise known as myocardial infarction) occurs when the supply of blood to the heart is suddenly blocked which is usually caused by a blood clot. A heart attack is a serious medical emergency which must be treated immediately as it may seriously damage the heart muscle as well as being life threatening.
The symptoms of a heart attack can include chest pain where the chest may feel as if it is being pressed or squeezed by a heavy object and pain can radiate from the chest to the jaw, arms, neck and back. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, feeling weak and/or light headed and overwhelming feelings of anxiety.
Not everyone has severe chest pain when they have a heart attack and often the pain can be mild and mistaken for indigestion.
A recent study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London and Harvard Medical School and published in the Lancet. The study looked at data on all deaths from heart attacks in England between 2006 and 2010 and the hospital statistics for the same period showing admissions, diagnosis and death. It found that 16% of patients who died of a heart attack had been treated in hospital for during the previous 28 days, some (not all) had noted warning signs of heart attack, including chest pain. That is equivalent to 1 in 6 patients.
It also concluded that those whose heart attack diagnosis was made alongside that of another illness were 2 to 3 times more likely to suffer death than those who were admitted for a heart attack alone.
Whilst it is possible that symptoms of heart attack are being missed by doctors, this is not necessarily the case. The report authors noted that some patients who had attended hospital had symptoms such as fainting, shortness of breath and chest pain, but that doctors may not have been alerted to the risk of heart attack because there was no obvious damage to the heart at the time of admission. As a result of the study, further research and guidance in this area is recommended as it is recognised that picking up on these early warning signs can potentially mean that lives are saved if later heart attacks are prevented.
Whilst the date cannot be clearly interpreted, it is of course always important that if someone is suffering symptoms of a heart attack they contact the emergency services as soon as possible.
As clinical negligence lawyers, we welcome more research into this area and greater education on the warning signs and symptoms of heart disease and heart attack to be aware of, for both patients and doctors, as we have also seen cases where missing or misinterpreting these symptoms has caused injury, or proved to be fatal, to patients.