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News & Trends - Pharmaceuticals

Is Australia primed for the first heart disease screening program?

Health Industry Hub | April 3, 2024 |

With over four million Australians living with heart disease, the future health of the nation is at risk without urgent intervention. If nothing changes, 1.37 million Australians will experience a cardiovascular disease (CVD) event, resulting in $62 billion in healthcare costs and $79 billion in indirect costs (between 2020 – 2029). The Heart Foundation is calling for a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle Australia’s biggest killer by introducing a targeted CVD screening program.

Natalie Raffoul, Heart Foundation Healthcare Programs Manager, emphasised the urgency of proactive measures, highlighting the burden placed on individuals to seek preventative care.

“Despite coronary heart disease being the leading cause of death in Australia, the onus is currently placed on individuals to voluntarily present to their GP for a preventative check,” Ms Raffoul stated.

She further underscored the impact of preventative heart disease screening, citing data suggesting that such measures in general practice could prevent over 67,000 heart attacks, strokes, and related deaths over five years.

“The Heart Foundation is now urging the Australian Government to fund such a program, commencing with the design of the program at a cost of $3.3 million (over two years),” Ms Raffoul highlighted.

Acknowledging the severity of the issue, the government has taken steps to address the nation’s leading cause of death. This includes a temporary extension to Medicare-subsidised Heart Health Checks, support for new Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) Risk Prevention Guidelines, and funding for one of Australia’s largest targeted heart disease screening trials in general practice.

Now, the final piece of the cardiovascular disease prevention puzzle is in sight: Australia’s first targeted heart disease screening program that serves as an ‘early alert’ to high-risk Australians.

“Heart disease takes the life of over 18,000 Australians each year, yet it is largely preventable if risk factors are picked up early enough,” Ms Raffoul reiterated.

Highlighting the success of existing screening programs for chronic diseases, including some cancers, Ms Raffoul emphasised the need for similar initiatives in tackling heart disease.

“It’s now time to establish one for heart disease so we can more seriously address a disease that is tragically our nation’s leading cause of death,” she stressed.

Recent findings from a first-phase study conducted by the Heart Foundation revealed promising results. A simple, targeted heart disease screening program could significantly enhance the uptake of Heart Health Checks among at-risk Australians, providing them with early warnings to take necessary actions.

The study, conducted in collaboration with 200 GP clinics, demonstrated that at-risk Australians are over 14 times more likely to attend for a check-up if recalled by their GP. Furthermore, the adoption of the new CVD Risk Prevention Guideline among healthcare professionals has been overwhelmingly positive. The new risk calculator, boasting the most sophisticated risk-prediction algorithm in Australia, has been utilised nearly 700,000 times since its introduction last July.

The concerted efforts in promoting these tools among GPs have resulted in a notable increase in the uptake of Medicare-subsidised Heart Health Checks. According to the latest Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) data, over 613,000 checks have been conducted. In August 2023, following the launch of the new calculator and Guideline, MBS Heart Health Checks reached a record 19,000, marking the highest level of uptake recorded since its introduction in 2019.

A targeted screening program that builds on these initiatives provides the best opportunity to reduce cardiovascular disease hospitalisations and deaths, as well as reducing future healthcare expenditure.

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