Fewer than one in five individuals receives cardiac rehabilitation after heart attack or coronary bypass surgery, when rehabilitation could reduce disability and prolong life, according to a study by researchers at Brandeis University.
The study is published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.
Overall, the study found that, despite Medicare coverage of cardiac rehabilitation sessions, among Medicare beneficiaries aged 65 and above, women participated less than men, older people less than younger, and non-whites significantly less than whites. Additionally, the researchers noted striking geographic differences in the use of cardiac rehabilitation after cardiac hospitalizations, ranging from 53.5 percent of patients in Nebraska to 6.6 percent in Idaho.
“We need to find ways to increase the use of cardiac rehabilitation, because it is used very little by patients who could benefit a lot,” said Jose A. Suaya, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and a lecturer and scientist at the Schneider Institutes for Health Policy, Heller School, at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
“Almost all patients with stable angina or a recent heart attack, bypass surgery, or a coronary stent could benefit from cardiac rehabilitation,” Suaya said. “Importantly, this benefit applies regardless of age, gender or race.”
In the largest and most comprehensive study of its kind, researchers evaluated Medicare claims data on 267,427 men and women aged 65 and above who survived at least 30 days after hospital discharge following a heart attack or coronary bypass surgery in 1997.
In the year following hospital discharge, fewer than one in five (18.7 percent) patients in the study had at least one session of cardiac rehabilitation. Bypass patients (31.0 percent) were far more likely to receive rehabilitation than patients who had had a heart attack (13.9 percent).
“Coronary bypass surgery is a big event for most patients and cardiac rehab has been adopted as a very important component of recovery,” said William B. Stason, M.D., M.Sci., study co-author and senior scientist at the Heller School. “In contrast, the condition of patients after heart attack varies widely and there is less agreement among physicians about the value of cardiac rehab compared with medications and lifestyle changes.”
Cardiac rehabilitation sessions include supervised and monitored exercise to improve cardiovascular fitness, as well as assistance in making lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation, improving diet and learning to reduce stress.
At the time of the study, Medicare (the primary health insurer for people age 65 and older) provided coverage for up to 36 sessions (three per week for three months) of cardiac rehabilitation after heart attack, bypass surgery, or stable angina. Rehabilitation patients in this study had an average of 24 sessions. In 2006, Medicare expanded to include patients undergoing heart and lung transplants, heart valve surgery and procedures such as stenting and angioplasty.
“Every patient who has had a myocardial infarction or is hospitalized for coronary disease should at least be considered as a candidate for rehab at the time of discharge,” Stason said.
“Patients and their families should ask for referral to cardiac rehabilitation before they are discharged from the hospital,” said co-author Donald S. Shepard, Ph.D., professor at the Heller School. “This is particularly important for patients with other medical conditions, who are less likely to receive a referral.”
Other co-authors are Sharon-Lise T. Normand, Ph.D. (Harvard Medical School); Philip Ades, M.D. (University of Vermont) and Jeffrey Prottas, Ph.D. (Brandeis University). The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services funded the study.
Source: Brandeis University