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Ultrasound heart tests drop 65% during coronavirus

Almost 22,000 fewer heart ultrasound tests were carried out in the East of England region – including Hertfordshire and Essex – after coronavirus lockdown began, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF).

Latest NHS England data shows the number of completed echocardiograms fell by 71% across April and May compared to February.

In the NHS East and North Hertfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group area, which includes Bishop's Stortford and Sawbridgeworth, 1,138 tests were carried out in February, 495 in April and 309 in May – a 73% decrease.

British Heart Foundation (38535072)
British Heart Foundation (38535072)

In the West Essex CCG area, which includes Stansted, for the same months there were 826, 225 and 417 tests – down 49.5%.

Echocardiograms, also known as echo tests, are ultrasound scans that enable doctors to diagnose, give a prognosis and determine follow-up treatment for a range of heart conditions, such as heart valve disease and heart failure.

The figures show the impact the pandemic has had on patient treatment and care. Only 7,551 echo tests were carried out in April and May this year compared with 29,388 in the same two months last year.

By the end of May, around 66% of people referred for an echo had been on the waiting list for six or more weeks compared to just 2% at the end of February.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, associate medical director at the BHF and consultant cardiologist, said: "Heart patients have been hit doubly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Not only are they at greater risk of complications from Covid-19, but they have also faced delays to vital treatment and care.

"Echocardiograms and other tests are used to diagnose and monitor a range of heart and circulatory conditions and are often among the first steps in someone's treatment journey. Delaying them could have a devastating knock-on effect on the rest of their care, preventing them from accessing the specialist treatments they may desperately need in time. Ultimately, this could lead to patients becoming sicker as they await care and, ultimately, more deaths.

"The NHS is now facing a cliff edge as it contends with resuming services and tackling a significant and growing backlog of treatment, all while continuing to fight Covid-19. These challenges are great, but they are not insurmountable.

"Restoring and maintaining care for patients living with long-term conditions, such as heart and circulatory diseases, must now become a priority."

The latest figures come as BHF-funded research published this week also showed how important echo imaging can be for patients with coronavirus in hospital. The paper, published in European Heart Journal – Cardiovascular Imaging, revealed that one in three patients hospitalised with Covid-19 who received an echocardiography scan had their treatment changed as a result.

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