According to the World Heart Foundation, heart disease and strokes caused more than 20 million deaths in 2022 alone. This is even more shocking when statistics also indicate that up to around 80% of heart-related deaths are preventable through lifestyle modifications, early detection and diagnosis, and proper medical care.
As clinical negligence solicitors, our primary concern is the well-being of individuals and the prevention of avoidable harm. On this year’s World Heart Day, we aim to shed light on preventable heart deaths resulting both from lack of individual knowledge and awareness, as well as those resulting from negligence. By raising awareness, we hope to empower individuals to make informed decisions about their heart health and encourage medical professionals to prioritise patient safety.
Most of this article focuses on ways heart-related deaths can be prevented before the situation becomes acute. However, it is also worth mentioning a useful fact in the event the worst does occur. If you suspect someone is having a heart attack, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is one of the best methods to prevent death when performed quickly and effectively. Interestingly, the Bee Gees' Stayin' Alive is the perfect song for hitting the 100-120 beats per minute required for ideal chest compressions. While the information below is important, we also encourage you to familiarise yourself with this song – if you do not know it well already!
The vast majority of heart-related conditions arise from unhealthy lifestyle choices. Here are some key areas where lifestyle decisions can have a negative impact on heart health:
Poor diet: A diet high in saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars can contribute to the development of heart disease. These unhealthy dietary choices can lead to the accumulation of plaque in the arteries, narrowing them and restricting blood flow to the heart.
Sedentary lifestyle: Researchers analysed 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels. They found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to that posed by obesity and smoking. Sitting can also increase the risk of heart disease as it is associated with weight gain, poor blood circulation, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and a weaker heart, all key risk factors for heart disease.
Smoking and tobacco use: The harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke damage blood vessels, increase the risk of blood clots, raise blood pressure and decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the heart.
Excessive alcohol consumption: Heavy drinking contributes to high blood pressure, increases the risk of irregular heart rhythms (arrhythmias), weakens the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) and leads to weight gain.
Chronic stress: Stress triggers the release of stress hormones which can raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and contribute to inflammation in the body. Chronic stress can also lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as overeating, excessive alcohol consumption or smoking, further exacerbating the risk of heart disease.
Making positive lifestyle choices can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease and promote overall cardiovascular well-being.
However, it is important to stress that not all heart conditions are avoidable as some relate to genetics and underlying medical conditions. While certain conditions are inevitable, early detection, appropriate medical care and lifestyle modifications can still help to manage and reduce the impact of these conditions on heart health.
There are also instances where medical negligence leads to unnecessary heart-related fatalities. Negligence in the healthcare sector can manifest in various forms, including in the following ways:
Misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis: This includes failing to accurately diagnose heart conditions in a timely way. Given that heart conditions often mimic symptoms of other less serous conditions, this can make the diagnosis difficult. For example, there are similarities between the symptoms caused by a heart attack and by indigestion.
Medication errors: These include administering incorrect medications, wrong dosages or failing to monitor a patient's reaction to medications. For example, some drugs can cause heart rhythm disturbances which can prove fatal if untreated.
Surgical errors: These not only include errors made by the surgical team but are often caused by lack of skills or miscommunication. For example, damaging blood vessels during surgery or failing to address perioperative complications promptly.
Inadequate post-operative care: This includes the failure to recognise the presence of post-operative complications. For instance, failing to diagnose and treat pericardial effusion - a recognised complication of cardiac surgery which requires urgent treatment.
Failure to provide timely emergency care: This includes failing to recognise the severity of an acute cardiac situation and/or delaying necessary interventions. For instance, in the case of heart attacks, strokes and cardiac arrests, timely emergency care such as CPR is crucial.
It is important to note that these are just examples and there can be various other instances where medical negligence can lead to heart-related injury or death. If you suspect medical negligence or malpractice, you should consult a legal professional to understand your rights and options.
World Heart Day serves as an excellent opportunity to emphasise the importance of heart health and encourage individuals and healthcare providers to adopt measures to guard against avoidable heart-related deaths. Below are some key points we would like to highlight.
Regular health check-ups: Routine health check-ups can help identify potential risk factors and early signs of heart disease. It is essential to maintain an open and honest dialogue with your healthcare provider to ensure proper assessment and timely detection of heart conditions.
Lifestyle modifications: Adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle significantly reduces the risk of heart disease. Engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a balanced diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats), managing stress levels, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol consumption are the best ways to prevent cardiovascular disease.
Recognising symptoms: It is important to be aware of the common symptoms of heart disease and infection such as chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, dizziness and irregular heartbeats.
Legal rights and support: In cases where negligence has resulted in preventable heart-related injury or death, it is important for affected individuals and their families to understand their legal rights. Seeking professional advice from clinical negligence lawyers can help ensure accountability and improvement in healthcare and provide the individuals concerned with compensation to support them during difficult times.
Continued education on best practices: Educating healthcare professionals on the most up-to-date, evidence-based practices and encouraging them to make thorough assessments of a patient's symptoms, medical history and other risk factors can help to ensure prompt detection and treatment of heart conditions.
Patient education about heart health, risk factors and lifestyle modifications: Empowering patients to take responsibility for and control of their heart health and ensuring open communication with their healthcare provider is crucial in reducing the risk of avoidable heart-related conditions.
Communication and collaboration: An interdisciplinary approach where doctors, nurses and specialists work together to share patient information and discuss treatment plans can enhance outcomes by ensuring comprehensive, co-ordinated care.
Learning from mistakes: Promoting a culture where healthcare professionals feel comfortable reporting errors or near misses mean that, when these events do occur, a thorough analysis can be undertaken to determine the root cause and reduce the likelihood of errors in the future.
The World Heart Day campaign encourages everyone to take care of their heart health and is a great opportunity for lay individuals and healthcare professionals alike to educate themselves about risk factors and play their part in preventing the most prominent cause of global deaths.