Tag Archives: atrial fibrillation

Atrial Fibrillation In The Time of Coronavirus: A Call For More Personal Remote ECG Monitoring

What is the best strategy for doctors and patients dealing with atrial fibrillation during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Clearly, at this time everyone needs to minimize visits to the doctor’s office, emergency room, urgent care center or hospital. But patients with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation by definition will have periodic spells during which their heart goes out of rhythm and many of these will occur during this period when we want to minimize contact with individuals outside the home.

In my practice, we are able to manage the majority of these episodes remotely by using a combination of personal ECG monitoring, online cloud ECG review capability, and home adjustment of medications.

Given the presence of coronavirus in the community and the potential for overload of acute care medical resources, outpatient/home management of atrial fibrillation is more important than ever.

I have described in detail in previous posts how we utilize Alivecor’s Kardia device in conjunction with the cloud-based KardiaPro subscription service to manage our afib patients remotely.  (See here and here.) The Apple Watch ECG can also be utilized for this purpose but is more expensive than Kardia and has no online review service.

With this approach we are able to minimize ER visits and hospitalizations. In addition, use of long-term monitors (which also requires a visit to an outpatient center for hook-up) has been greatly reduced.

Given heightened anxiety during the pandemic we are also seeing many patients experiencing palpitations, which are not due to their atrial fibrillation. These can be due to benign premature ventricular contractions or premature atrial contractions.

If an afib patient calls with symptoms of palpitations or rapid heart beat and they have a Kardia device or Apple Watch ECG we can review the recorded ECG, and can quickly make a determination of the cause and best treatment. If they don’t have one of these devices we have no idea what the cause is or the best treatment.

General Advice For Afib Patients 

Obviously, it would be great if patients don’t have episodes of afib during the pandemic.

Paying attention to the eight lifestyle factors which influence afib occurrence I’ve recently posted on is even more important during this stressful period. In particular, afib patients should be limiting the inclination to consume more alcohol and utilizing healthier ways to reduce stress.

Regular exercise has demonstrated benefits in reducing afib episodes and also reduces stress. Gyms are closed or closing, but with spring arriving, outside exercise is always possible. Even if you don’t have exercise equipment in your home there are many exercises you can do inside that provide cardio, strength, and flexibility training. Consider bodyweight exercises, jumping rope, hoping on to a small chair, or go find your old Richard Simmons exercise VHS tape. My wife and I have been enjoying the Seven app lately which takes us through a variety of exercises without the need for equipment. There are tens of thousands of exercise videos on YouTube.

Some afibbers find that meditation or relaxation apps or yoga helps with stress control.

Finally, make sure you have plenty of your prescription medications on hand and that you take them as prescribed without fail. Many pharmacies have home-delivery available for prescriptions.

Regarding medications, please note that good blood pressure control also reduces afib recurrence. Do not stop ACE inhibitors or ARBs as I discussed here.

A Call For More Self Monitoring

Given the importance of staying home right now, afib patients who do not have a method for self monitoring their heart rhythms should consider acquiring a Kardia device or Apple Watch.

Antifibrillatorily Yours,

-ACP

N.B. As I’ve mentioned multiple times I have no connections, financial or otherwise to Apple or Alivecor.

KardiaMobile, the original single lead personal ECG is selling for $84 right now. It’s available also on Amazon.

In my opinion, there is no compelling reason to prefer the Kardia6l, which costs $149 over the single lead KardiaMobile.

Both of these devices work with a Google or iPhone app which is free. To store recorded ECGs on Alivecor’s cloud service requires a subscription fee.

When I enroll my patients into KardiaPro I send them an email invitation which allows them to purchase the KardiaMobile plus have one year of cloud storage and connection to my KardiaPro dashboard for $120. Thereafter the one year KardiaPro service is $60/year.

Apple Watch 5 starts at $399. ECGS are stored in the iPhone app. No cloud storage. ECGs can be emailed as PDF.

Patients with Apple 4 Watches or later can send a PDF of their ECG via email or fax to their cardiologist (https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT208955). Check with your cardiologist if they can view a PDF.

NOTE: Apple has closed all of their retail stores outside of Greater China until March 27. Online stores are open at www.apple.com, or you can download the Apple Store app on the App Store so you can still buy an Apple Watch or an iPhone too.

Cheaper personal ECG devices are available. I’ve reviewed several of these and don’t recommend them. (See here and here.)

Thanks to Mark Goldstein  and Dan Field for review/editing of this post.

Should You Participate In The Apple Watch Heartline Study?

Apple and Johnson and Johnson are collaborating on an interesting research study which aims to analyze the impact of an app-based heart health program with Apple Watch on the early detection  of atrial fibrillation (AFib), and the reduction of stroke risk.

I tried to participate in this study but didn’t meet the entry requirements which are as follows:

  • Be age 65 or older
  • Be a resident of the United States for the duration of the study
  • Use an iPhone 6s or later, with iOS 12.2 or later (Learn more)
  • Have Original Medicare, sometimes called Traditional Medicare (Learn more)

Because I’m still working I have private health insurance and didn’t qualify.

According to the Heartline website:

The Heartline Study is a pragmatic, randomized, controlled, virtual research study, from Johnson & Johnson, in collaboration with Apple. The primary objective is to analyze the impact of features on Apple Watch, combined with a heart health engagement program, on early detection of atrial fibrillation and clinical outcomes such as stroke. In addition, the study seeks to determine the impact of a heart health engagement program paired with a medication adherence intervention among those participants receiving an oral anticoagulant therapy who have been previously diagnosed with AFib. The data will also be used to find novel markers to identify, predict, or evaluate other health conditions.

The study website indicates some participants may get to borrow an Apple Watch 5:

Some participants may be asked to obtain an Apple Watch Series 5 or later. These participants will be offered two options to obtain a watch: purchase a watch, or get one on loan for the duration of the study and return it when your participation in the study ends. Johnson & Johnson and Apple are committed to ensuring that participation in the study is not limited based on financial need. Not all participants will be asked to obtain a watch, so make sure to follow the instructions in the app.

Information for Healthcare Providers who are trying to decide whether their patients should participate Is here.

Here is the study in graphic form

 

Screen Shot 2020-03-01 at 8.23.01 AM There is an extensive FAQ section on the Healthline website which reveals the following companies roles:

Janssen Scientific Affairs, LLC, an affiliate of Johnson & Johnson, is the sponsor of the Heartline Study. Apple is supporting the study technology and design of the app. Evidation Health provides the technology and study operations that enable the Heartline app and study experience for participants. Best Buy operates the Apple Watch distribution program for eligible study participants.

 

The ostensible motive for Apple and J  and J is to improve outcomes in patients with afib.  Obviously Janssen will sell more of its blood thinner Xarelto if more cases of afib are identified.

Participants will be sharing lots of private information with Apple and Evidation.

Despite these concerns I would likely have participated if I qualified and I will recommend that interested patients consider participating in Heartline.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

New Study Confirms Poor Apple Watch ECG App Sensitivity For Atrial Fibrillation

Although Apple, based on its internal research, claims that the Apple Watch (AW) ECG has a 98% sensitivity and a 99% specificity for detection of atrial fibrillation, doubts have been raised about its accuracy in the real world.

I have recently reported on Apple Watch’s inability to diagnose atrial fibrillation  (AF) when the heart rate is >120 beats per minute. This inherent limitation means AW has a built-in reduced sensitivity (which was not present in the testing group.)

In a Research Letter published online Feb. 24th in Circulation, Dr. Marc Gillinov, reports on the accuracy of Apple Watch in a population of patients who were post cardiac surgery  and therefore on cardiac telemetry with a high risk of going in and out of AF.

Rhythm assessments using the Apple Watch ECG were performed 3 times per day over 2 days on 50 patients. Comparison was made between the watch reading (Sinus rhythm, AF, or inconclusive) and an expert human interpretation of the PDF from the watch and simultaneously obtained telemetry rhythm strip.

The results were disappointing for the AW.

The AW4 notification correctly identified AF in 34 of 90 instances, yielding a sensitivity of 41%. Of 25 patients with at least 1 episode of AF, AF was identified in 19. Among patients in SR, none was designated as AF (ie, no false positives); however, rhythm was deemed inconclusive in 31% of patients, and there was no additional attempt to assess rhythm. Overall agreement between AW4 notification and telemetry was 61% (κ statistic = 0.33 [95% CI, 0.24–0.41]).

Screen Shot 2020-02-28 at 3.17.12 PM

This confirms my prediction that AW would identify less than half of AF cases.

I have to believe that the 29 cases diagnosed as “inconclusive” were due to the AW AF inherent blinding limitation related to rapid heart rate. If we presume these would all have been correctly identified as AF (if the AW had not been hamstrung) then the sensitivity increases to 70%.

The authors of this article don’t seem to understand the difference between unreadable (meaning too much artifact to make a diagnosis) versus inconclusive (which Apple only uses when the AF is > 120 BPM.) They conclude by saying:

The unreadable (ie, inconclusive) rate reported in that study was 6% compared with 31% in this pilot study.

They have muddled together unreadable and inconclusive.

I do strongly agree with their final conclusions

Variations in sensitivity between these 2 studies suggest the need for further validation before this technology is adopted by the public for AF detection. Physicians should exercise caution before undertaking action based on electrocardiographic diagnoses generated by this wrist-worn monitor.

Indeed, any diagnosis from the Apple Watch itself should be confirmed by a cardiologist who is an expert at interpreting these single-lead ECG recordings.

Conclusively Yours,

-ACP

Omron Complete Consolidates and Simplifies Home ECG and Blood Pressure Monitoring

The skeptical cardiologist has been testing out a unique and ingenious device which allows the simultaneous measurement of two key cardiovascular parameters: blood pressure and heart rhythm.  Omron partnered with AliveCor to create the Complete which is the first combination blood pressure monitor and electrocardiogram monitor.

Given that Alivecor’s Kardia Mobile ECG device is capable of accurately identifying atrial fibrillation, the Complete offers patients the ability to monitor for the two biggest treatable risk factors for stroke: atrial fibrillation and hypertension.

I have evaluated the Complete in both office and home settings and find it to be easy to use and highly reliable.

The main component of Complete is an attractive unit that measures 9 by 4 by 5 inches, weighs a little over a pound and combines the blood pressure monitor and the AliveCor sensors. It ships with a wide-range D-ring BP cuff which fits 9 to 17-inch upper arms and runs on 4 AA batteries.

IMG_0009.jpeg

Recording Blood Pressure and ECG

You can easily record just blood pressure using the device right out of the box (after inserting the included 4 AA batteries.)  However, the full capabilities of the device are realized in conjunction with Omron’s Connect US/CAN Smartphone app which can be downloaded for free. Once paired with the app, the device can record and transfer ECGs along with blood pressure measurements to the app and the cloud.

The process of recording a single-lead ECG on the Complete  is nearly identical to the process when using the AliveCor Kardia mobile ECG device except that there are four sensors for Complete versus the two sensors on the Kardia device.

After opening the Omron app on your smartphone and pressing the “Record BP and EKG” button, you place the smartphone horizontally on the Complete cradle and put your hands on the sensors with thumbs on the tops sensors and 2-3 fingers on the lateral sensors as illustrated below.

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 12.40.24 PM

Once the device senses a good signal the ECG recording will automatically begin and continue for 30 seconds. It’s important to stay very still and quiet during this time to optimize the recording quality.

800x800_BP7900-front.jpg

Like the Kardia device if your fingers are too dry, electrical contact may be suboptimal. This can be fixed by wetting your fingers with an alcohol wipe, a spray from a sanitizer bottle or just water from the tap. See my discussion on this here.

I found the 4 sensors plus the stability of the device the sensors reside in made for a higher percentage of high-quality ECG recordings on the Complete versus the smaller Kardia device. Stability on the Kardia device is a particular issue for the elderly and we were able to consistently obtain good quality ECG recordings in my office on the frail and elderly with the Complete.

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 12.59.16 PM
Typical, easily-obtained, high-quality ECG recording obtained from the Complete

The PDF of the ECG can be emailed to yourself for storage or to your physician for his review. With a Premium plan upgrade, you can store the ECGS online or utilize KardiaPro which shares your BP and ECG data through the cloud with your physician.

Blood Pressure Plus ECG

You can choose to record BP and ECG separately or at the same time. To record both, place the BP cuff on your upper arm,  push the start/stop button and then put your fingers on the ECG sensors. While the ECG is recording, the BP cuff inflates and obtains the BP measurement.

As always when taking BP it is important to make sure the cuff is at the level of the heart.

Screen Shot 2020-02-23 at 12.39.22 PM

 

Using KardiaPro Online Dashboard With Complete

Many of my patients have both atrial fibrillation and hypertension. For them, the KardiaPro dashboard provides a unique online monitoring system that allows me to view both their blood pressure recordings and their ECG recordings in one spot.

Omron’s Complete now simplifies and consolidates the process of recording BP and ECG for such patients. A typical KardiaPro report from one of my combined AF and hypertensive patients  appears below.

kardiapro bp and ecg

Where Does Complete Fit In The Home Monitoring Universe?

I see Complete serving in two important areas.

The first is as a consolidated unit for patients with atrial fibrillation and hypertension. Complete provides an easy, quick, and stable method for these patients to home monitor their BPs and their rhythm.

The second area is in physician offices. The ability to record a high quality, medical-grade ECG simultaneously with blood pressure will improve the physician’s ability to screen for hypertension and rhythm abnormalities in an efficient manner.

Completely Yours,

-ACP

N.B. Looking at the Omron website today I note that Complete is selling for $159.99, a 20% discount.

AliveCor’s Kardia Mobile ECG Accurately Identifies Atrial Fibrillation >120 BPM

The skeptical cardiologist revealed recently that the  Apple Watch (AW) ECG app is incapable of identifying atrial fibrillation (AF) if the heart rate is greater than 120 beats per minute. It labels these recordings as “inconclusive”.

Since it is common for AF to present at rates >120 BPM, AW ECG will fail to notify many (if not most) of its users that they are in AF.

AliveCor’s Kardia mobile ECG device (both the single lead and the six lead), on the other hand, has no problems identifying AF >120 BPM. I have found that the Kardia ECG was highly accurate in patients with rapid AF from using the device in hundreds of my patients since 2013.

After writing about the AW AF flaw I opened my KardiaPro dashboard which connects to the online ECG recordings each of my patients has made.

Two of my patients with paroxysmal AF had gone into AF in the last 2  days and made recordings.

Both of them had rates > 120 BPM. In both cases, Kardia had easily made the diagnosis. AW would have declared these “inconclusive.”

Patients should be aware of this AW AF flaw. The absence of a declaration of possible AF on the AW ECG should not reassure anyone of the absence of AF.

AW users should have their high rate recordings reviewed by a cardiologist.

Alternatively, they could purchase a Kardia device and utilize it for heart rates over 120 BPM.

Tachyagnostically Yours,

-ACP

Apple Watch ECG Cannot Diagnose Atrial Fibrillation Faster Than 120 BPM

The Apple Heart Study received great fanfare at least year’s AHA meetings  and was subsequently published in the NEJM.  Many Apple Watch (AW) wearers having heard of this study may have concluded the device will reliably identify atrial fibrillation (AF).

In my commentary on the Apple Heart Study I pointed out several issues with relying on Apple Watch for AF diagnosis, most significantly false positive notifications. Recent patient experiences have, in addition, made me concerned about false negative notifications and a lack of sensitivity.

AW ECG is inherently limited in diagnosing AF above 120 BPM. This guarantees a substantial number (possibly the majority) of AF episodes will not be recognized. Such false negative notifications may falsely reassure patients that they don’t have AF and delay them seeking medical attention.

Recently, I saw a patient who was referred to me for an abnormal 12-lead ECG. While reviewing his symptoms we discovered that his AW had registered high heart rates, sometimes up to 150 beats per minute, which lasted for several hours. 

Although the AW had recorded this high heart rate it had not notified him of the possibility that he had atrial fibrillation or even that he had a high heart rate.

He had made the ECG recording below using the AW and the results came back inconclusive.

CL-120-AFIB-AW4.png

The AW ECG recording clearly shows atrial fibrillation going at a rapid rate-over 150 beats per minute-but the accompanying interpretation gives no hint that the patient had AF.

Based on the combination of an absence of any irregular heart rate/AF warnings from his AW and the absence of a diagnosis of AF when he made AW ECG recordings of the fast rates the patient assumed that he did not have atrial fibrillation.

Why is this? Apparently Apple has decided not to check for AF if  the heart rate is over 120 BPM.

Given that most patients with new-onset AF will have heart rates over 120 BPM (assuming they are not on a rate slowing drug like a beta-blocker) it appears likely that Apple Watch ECG will fail to diagnose most cases of AF.

I asked my patient to record an ECG with his watch every time he felt his heart racing after our office visit. A few days later he was sitting in an easy chair after Thanksgiving watching TV and had another spell of racing heart. This time the heart rate was less than 120 BPM and the AW was able to analyze and make the diagnosis.

CL-150-AFIB-AW4.png

The inability of AW ECG to diagnose AF when the rate is >120 BPM further adds to my concerns about widespread unsupervised use of the device. When we combine inconclusive high heart rate analyses with the unknown sensitivity of the irregular heartbeat notification algorithm the AW may be providing many patients who have atrial fibrillation with a false sense of security.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

Eight Lifestyle Changes All Patients Should Make To Reduce The Recurrence Of Atrial Fibrillation

Previously, the skeptical cardiologist answered the question “Why Did I Go Into Atrial fibrillation?

An equally important question is “how can I reduce the chances that I have more spells of atrial fibrillation (AF)?”

I spend a fair amount of time discussing with my AF patients what lifestyle changes they can make in this regard. I’ve discovered, however, that many AF patients I am seeing for a second opinion seem unaware of the changes they can make to minimize AF recurrence.

Herein I give you the eight most important changes you can make to minimize both the onset and the recurrence of AF.

  1. Eliminate or substantially reduce alcohol.
  2. Lose weight if you are obese.
  3. Stop smoking. Stopping is associated with a 36% lower risk of AF.
  4. Get your blood pressure under good control.
  5. Get regular aerobic exercise. At least 150 minutes of moderate cardio exercise weekly.
  6. Eat A Healthy Diet. Don’t Eat Crap (as Younger Next Year says). In general, because obesity is such a big factor  in AF, I am fine with whatever diet plan has you at a BMI <28. Healthy diets controlling weight avoid ultra-processed foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and minimize white rice, pasta, pastries, and potatoes. These diets include lots of fresh vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and fish. Full fat yogurt and cheese are fine in moderation. Eat real food, mostly plants, not too much as Michael Pollan has famously said.
  7. Get high-quality sleep. This means treating any sleep apnea properly in addition to standard advice for getting a good night’s sleep. The risk of AF is four times higher in patients with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) independent of other confounding variables
  8. Reduce stress. Easier said than done I know. Everything from meditation to Yoga to retiring or cutting back at work to psychotherapy can be tried in this category. Go with whatever works for you. Knowing when you are in or out of AF by utilizing personal ECG monitoring devices may help reduce stress, especially if used under physician supervision.

Let’s dig a little deeper into some specific recent evidence on three which have a huge impact: alcohol, exercise, and obesity.

Alcohol and Atrial Fibrillation

In March, I wrote about the alcohol AF trial recently published in NEJM:

The Alcohol-AF Trial. Binge alcohol consumption (holiday heart) can trigger atrial fibrillation (AF) and observational studies show a higher incidence of AF with higher amounts of alcohol consumption.

This trial was the first-ever randomized controlled trial of alcohol abstinence in moderate drinkers with paroxysmal AF (minimum 2 episodes in the last 6 months) or persistent AF requiring cardioversion.

Participants consumed >/= 10 standard drinks per week and were randomized to abstinence or usual consumption.

Participants underwent comprehensive rhythm monitoring with implantable loop recorders or existing pacemakers and twice-daily AliveCor monitoring for 6 months.

Abstinence prolonged AF-free survival by 37% (118 vs 86 days) and lowered the AF burden from 8.2% to 5.6%

AF related hospitalizations occurred in 9% of abstinence patients versus 20% of controls

Participants in the abstinence arm also experienced improved symptom severity, weight loss and BP control.

This trial gives me precise numbers to present to my AF patients to show them how important eliminating alcohol consumption is if they want to have fewer AF episodes. The study further emphasizes lifestyle changes (including weight loss, exercise, and stress-reduction) can dramatically reduce the incidence of atrial fibrillation.

Obesity and Atrial Fibrillation

We have known for some time of a strong association between obesity and atrial fibrillation. We also know we can make sheep go into atrial fibrillation by making them obese and creating a diseased, fat-infiltrated left atrium.

More recently we have solid evidence that sustained weight reduction can significantly reduce the recurrence of AF.

The Australian LEGACY study took 355 AF AF patients with BMI>27 and offered them a weight management program:

Weight loss was categorized as group 1 (≥ 10%), group 2 (3% to 9%), and group 3 (<3%). Weight trend and/or fluctuation was determined by yearly follow-up. Endpoints included impact on the AF severity scale and 7-day ambulatory monitoring.

Weight loss ≥ 10% resulted in a 6-fold  greater probability of no AF recurrences compared with the other 2 groups. High weight fluctuation doubled the risk of AF recurrence.

Of course, all these factors are interrelated. Exercise, diet, stress, alcohol consumption, and sleep quality all impact weight control and obesity. Patients with AF should be working on all 8 levers for optimal benefit.

Given the LEGACY study findings, if you have AF and are obese, you should be using all lifestyle factors at your disposal to get your body weight down >10%. Do this in a slow and steady fashion with lifestyle changes that are sustainable for the rest of your life. You want to lose that weight and keep it off.

Exercise And AF

The most compelling evidence for the independent role of exercise in reducing AF comes from a Norwegian study of 51 patients with AF who were randomized either to aerobic interval training (AIT) or to their regular exercise habits. The patients randomized to AIT engaged in four 4-minute bouts of high-intensity (85 to 95% peak heart rate) aerobic exercise interspersed with 3 minutes of recovery.

There was a significant reduction in AF burden (measured by implanted loop recorders) in the exercise group, with the mean time in AF dropping from 8.1% to 4.8%, with no significant change in the control group. Patients in the exercise group experienced fewer and less severe symptoms whereas the non-exercising, control group had no change. In comparison with controls, patients randomly assigned to exercise also increased their peak oxygen consumption (Vo2peak), cardiac function, and quality of life, while improving body mass index and blood lipids

Screen Shot 2020-02-02 at 12.19.44 PM
Atrial fibrillation (AF) burden in patients with AF during the study. Mean time in AF was measured by an implanted loop recorder (n=36) before, during, and after 12 weeks of aerobic interval training (exercise) or usual care (control). Patients without AF during the study period are excluded. Mean changes from baseline to follow up were −6.2±8.9 percentage points (pp), P=0.02 for exercise; 4.8±12.5 pp, P=0.09 for control; and 11.0±3.9 pp, P=0.007 between groups. Error bars show the 95% confidence interval.

An accompanying editorial provides this graphic on the benefits of exercise training in AF

 

For all you readers without AF you can minimize your chances of developing AF by following these lifestyle recommendations.

Afibrillatorily Yours,

-ACP

N.B. A PDF summary of the 8 factors is available here (Lifestyle changes Afib)

N.B.2 For those wishing to mimic the Norwegian AIT protocol here is the complete description:

Endurance training was performed as walking or running on a treadmill 3 times a week for 12 weeks. Each session started with a 10-minute warmup at 60% to 70% of maximal heart rate obtained at exercise testing (HRpeak), followed by four 4-minute intervals at 85% to 95% of HRpeak with 3 minutes of active recovery at 60% to 70% of HRpeakbetween intervals, ending with a 5-minute cooldown period. During AF, patients exercised at the same treadmill speed and inclination as in the previous sessions in sinus rhythm, with the Borg scale of 6 to 20 as an aid to control intensity. When familiar with the training regimen, patients were allowed to perform 1 exercise per week at home, where exercise intensity was documented with a heart rate monitor (RS300X, Polar Electro, Kempele, Finland).

 

 

 

 

An In-depth, Objective Comparison of Mobile ECG Devices: Emay versus Kardia

The skeptical cardiologist has been a huge advocate of personal mobile ECG monitoring to empower patient’s in understanding/monitoring their heart rhythm.

The deserved leaders in this field are the Apple Watch (4 and later) and Alivecor’s Kardia device which comes in single-lead and six-lead flavors.

Both Apple and AliveCor have gotten FDA approval for their mobile ECG device and have a body of published studies supporting their accuracy.

In contrast, there are a number of “copy-cat” mobile ECG devices which have been feeding on the success of Apple Watch and Kardia but do not have the bona fides the two leaders have.

I reviewed the SonoHealth ECG here and found it sorely lacking in comparison to Kardia in terms of accuracy of diagnosis and quality of recordings, the two most important aspects of a personal ECG monitor.

Dan Field, a physician  and reader of my blog, has been evaluating a device similar to the SonoHealth ECG made by Emay.

He has provided a point by point comparison of the two  devices in the chart below

Emay versus Kardia

His summary:

“The Kardia6L was clearly superior in almost every way except for price and even that was within the margin of error. ”

It should be noted that the single lead Kardia mobile ECG is actually cheaper than the Emay and retails for $99.

Let The (Mobile ECG) Buyer Beware

I ended my post reviewing SonoHealth’s ECG with a warning which applies equally to the Emay device:

The SonoHealth EKGraph is capable of making a reasonable quality single lead ECG. Presumably all the other devices utilizing the same hardware will work as well.

However, the utility of these devices for consumers and patients lies in the ability of the software algorithms to provide accurate diagnoses of the cardiac rhythm.

Apple Watch 4 and AliveCor’s Kardia mobile ECG do a very good job of sorting out atrial fibrillation from normal rhythm but the SonoHealth EKGraph does a horrible job and should not be relied on for this purpose.

The companies making and selling the EKGraph and similar devices have not done the due diligence Apple and AliveCor have done in making sure their mobile ECG devices are accurate.  As far as I can tell this is just an attempt to fool naive patients and consumers by a combination of marketing misinformation and manipulation.

I cannot recommend SonoHealth’s EKGraph or any of the other copycat mobile ECG devices. For a few dollars more consumers can have a proven, reliable mobile ECG device with a solid algorithm for rhythm diagnosis. The monthly subscription fee that AliveCor offers as an option allows permanent storage in the cloud along with the capability to connect via KardiaPro with a physician and is well worth the dollars spent.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

 

Ablation For Atrial Fibrillation: One Patient’s Experience

The skeptical cardiologist previously shared reader Mark Goldstein’s experience with atrial fibrillation which led him to choose to have an ablation.

Mark has subsequently undergone the ablation procedure and has kindly shared his thoughts and observations on the process. I’ve included a few comments (in green).


The Mystery of Afib and An Ablation

Everyone associated with afib knows how mysterious it seems to be. What triggers it? Why does it stop? Why does it affect marathoners, cross-country skiers, and NBA players more than other groups? Why is everyone’s experience as unique as popcorn granules? Recently Dr. Pearson invited me to talk about my accidental discover of afib, my unsuccessful cardioversions, and my decision to have an ablation.

In the last post, afib was affecting me every day when exercising. Moderate exercise would cause my heart to, as my electrocardiologist would say, “act like a drunken sailor.” It became hard. Exercise is important to me. Medication was not working for me. An ablation was the next step.

Choosing A Doctor

Before you decide on the cardiologist or electrophysiologist (EP)  to perform an ablation, do research. Ablations are not particularly dangerous. No one is opening your chest. The doctor is “redecorating” your heart…OK, killing tiny parts of your heart. People occasionally die. There can be complications like infections. How long has your doctor been doing ablations? How many a year? I asked my EP where he learned the technique. Turned out that he learned it from the French doctor who invented it. Peer recognition is good. My EP leads the Atrial Fibrillation Center at the big regional hospital where I had the work. Find out if they are involved in research since this suggests they keep up on the latest developments. I saw that my EP was doing research via the U.S. government’s Medline Plus clinical trial website (https://medlineplus.gov/clinicaltrials.html). And if you are reading about the latest research on the Internet, you can see if your doctor is keeping up with the latest. I asked my EC about a study that appeared days before our appointment. He read it and talked about it. He passed my tests.

(I’ve been meaning to write about a recent study which looked at the early mortality rate (<30 days after procedure) from catheter ablation for atrial fibrillation which  was 0.46% among more than 60,000 patients treated for A-fib ablation between 2010 and 2015.  These real-world rates are higher than those reported in randomized trials. This doesn’t necessarily make ablation a “dangerous” procedure but patients should know that there is a 1 in 200 chance of dying from it.)

Interestingly, and relevant to Mark’s point about choosing an EP who does a lot of ablations per year, mortality rate was higher in low volume hospital (<21 ablations per year). These data support choosing a high volume operator in a high volume hospital. 

Once you choose a doctor, the remainder is scheduling and insurance paperwork. My experience is that you should assume at least a day in the hospital and a day to recover.

I arrived early the day of the procedure. After my previous cardioversions I was experienced with the registration and prep process. A few hours later I was on a gurney entering “mission control.” The procedure room was full of large TV’s, reminding me of launching a rocket. It can be a bit intimidating, but I thought of it as a sports bar. Instead of watching games people were watching my heart. It wasn’t a long time in the room before I was told I’d be sleeping soon.

They were right because I “woke up” about four hours later in a recovery room. I immediately saw my heart rate was in the 70’s and steady. That was good. I put on my Apple Watch and started the ECG test. Without waiting for the watch to decide, I could see my beats were rhythmic. YEAH! I saw “normal sinus rhythm” on the watch and celebrated. Later I found out that I had almost four hours of a successful ablation. Apparently, that is a lot of work however the afib, aflutter, was gone.

After the procedure I felt pressure around my heart. Not surprising considering the “redecorating” that was done. It was more of an annoyance than painful. That lasted for a few days. The area around my groin was also sore from the insertion of the ablation instruments. Certainly not unbearable but not fun. A couple of hours after the procedure I asked if I could go for a walk. The staff accompanied me for a walk and saw that I was fine. I asked if I continue walking. After a mile of moderate walking around the hospital (thanks to the Apple Watch’s measurements), my groin felt much better. When my watch showed I walked three miles, I went to bed. The following morning before breakfast, I walked another three miles. After ablation, start walking as soon as you can. It helped me physically and probably more important mentally showing that I was OK.

My groin area was purple for about a week so the worst part of the ablation was I couldn’t wear a Speedo (nor did I want to wear one). It was ugly and a minor nuisance but didn’t affect my activities. Oddly the second day after the procedure I woke up feeling the aftermath of cramps in both of my calves. This was bothersome walking stairs especially. I hadn’t heard of cramps associated with an ablation so it may just have been coincidence. The next day I could walk fine.

Post-Ablation Early Recurrence

My heart was fine after the ablation. I checked it regularly with my Apple Watch and Kardia Mobile EKG. Life was good until 1:55AM a couple of weeks after the ablation. I was sleeping. Without explanation my heart rate jumped from 53 beats per minute to 110 in five minutes. When I woke hours later, I knew my heart was racing. The Kardia Mobile showed I had a “uncategorized” problem. It stayed around 110 beats no matter what I was doing. A few hours later my EP saw my EKG chart and said I needed another cardioversion. He reminded me that he told me the first time we discussed ablation that during the first three or four months I might have more rhythm problems as the heart returns to normal. He was right.

A few days later I had my third cardioversion. My heart immediately went from 110 back to 60/70 beats per minute after the procedure. Yeah! I was beating normally again.

One Month After Ablation

Today is a month after the last cardioversion. My Apple Watch, Kardia Mobile, and body tell me I am fine. The other metric I check regularly is my heart rate while sleeping since it should reflect my heart rate without activity. I’m averaging 54 beats per minute at night which is fine. I can now exercise moderately or intensely. I am celebrating by writing this article.

I continue to take a blood thinner because of my CHADS₂ score. Hopefully my afib adventure is over…but I will not be surprised if it returns.


So far, so good.

Hopefully, Mark will remain free of afib for many years if not a lifetime but given that he is empowered with both a Kardia 6L device and an Apple Watch for monitoring his rhythm I feel confident he will know when and if it returns.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

N.B. Here are the charges for the ablation procedure.

Hospital – 86,350

EC/EP – 7,365

Anesthesia – 4,550

Blood test – 120

Misc charge – 22

Mark ended up paying $200 out of pocket.

Mark Goldstein works in the field of cybersecurity in the Washington, DC area and can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com

Atrial Fibrillation Detection, Personal ECG Monitoring and Ablation: A Patient’s Story

One of the joys of writing this blog is the communication it allows me with discerning  individuals and patients across the planet. One such reader, Mark Goldstein, discovered he was in atrial fibrillation after purchasing an Apple Watch 4.

He now utilizes both the Kardia Mobile ECG and the Apple Watch to aid in his personal monitoring of his atrial fibrillation and has been actively pursuing a rhythm control strategy under the care of his electrophysiologist.

I asked him to share with my readers his experience which recently culminated in an ablation.

What follows is his description with my editorial comments in green.


December 2018 I bought a crazy, expensive Apple Watch. That watch may have saved my life. I spend much of my days at a treaddesk (a combination desk and treadmill). I was curious to find out how much exercise I was doing. I bought the watch, put it on, and starting walking as I do almost every day. Two hours later the watch had an alarm. It was warning me about something called “atrial fibrillation,” It said, “your heart has shown signs of an irregular rhythm.” What! I never heard of afib before. I quickly learned about it. Heart palpitations, no. Pain/pressure in the chest, no. Sweaty, faint, dizzy, etc., no, no. no. I checked the box for tired but I assumed it was because of the amount of exercise I was doing.

The next day I was fortunate that I had a physical scheduled a year ago. I told my doctor that my “crazy, expensive watch” thinks I have afib. My doctor laughed, telling me about how he had checked and probed every part of my body for the last 20 years (the probing part I remembered well). As the exam was concluding, he was puzzled by the afib warning so he grabbed my wrist to check my pulse. A few seconds later he was asking the nurse to give me an EKG. Darn, the watch was correct (and for me it was correct 99% of the time when I had afib and when I was normal – praise to Apple).

Recording from Mark’s Apple Watch 4 showing atrial fibrillation with controlled ventricular response. Heart rate is only 82 beats per minute. The AW algorithm correction identifies atrial fibrillation.

(This is a great example of how atrial fibrillation can be missed by the routine office physical examination. Some patients, especially those with non-rapid heart rates (due to rate slowing meds like beta-blockers or to intrinsically  slow conduction of electrical impulses) are minimally symptomatic and their pulses don’t feel that irregular. Because the first symptom of afib can be stroke I am an advocate of screening)

Shortly I got to meet a cardiologist (like Dr. Pearson, they are all nice people). Another EKG, afib confirmed. As we were talking about my symptoms or lack of symptoms, he said that afib was a bit like Eskimo’s describing snow. Each snowflake is unique and each afib patient is unique. I was in persistent afib. Probably had been in this state for two or three years since my heart rate jumped while sleeping, exercising, and at rest.

(Each afib experience is unique but not all cardiologists are nice people. Mark has been fortunate.)

The treatment plan was a cardioversion, an electrical shock to the heart, or as my cardiologist described it “like rebooting a computer.”

(See my post on cardioversion here.)

As a tech person, I understood that. The risk of not fixing my afib was five times the likelihood of a stroke. The risks were minimal so I chose the cardioversion.

(A common misconception is that ablation or cardioversion eliminates or substantially lowers the risk of stroke in afib. This is not the case. I’ll devote a future post to delve into this issue.)

Cardioversion one lasted four days before my Apple Watch started to detect afib.

(I’ve described in detail how helpful patient utilization of personal ECG monitoring is in letting me know the rhythm status of patients prior to and following cardioversion here.)

The cardiologist next step was cardioversion two along with a drug to help with rhythm control. Number two lasted a month before I saw my heart rate jump again. I thought something was wrong even though my watch was not detecting afib. Another EKG, this time the result was aflutter. The cardioversions were indeed like a reboot of the computer. If you have a virus on your computer, a reboot may be a temporary fix but eventually the virus will return.

(There are many drugs whose purpose is to suppress the recurrence of atrial fibrillation. Mark was prescribed the extended release version of propafenone, a Type IC antiarrhythmic drug (AAD)  similar in efficacy and side effects to flecainide. Type IC AADs should only be used in patients with normal left ventricular function (which was demonstrated in Mark by an echo) and without significant coronary artery disease (typically proven by a negative stress test).

To Ablate Or Not To Ablate

Now I got to meet an electrocardiologist. He said my afib would return and recommended an ablation. He said it was unlikely to be a permanent cure but it would help.

The aflutter disappeared after a day or so. I thought my afib was gone too but should I have an ablation? Ablations are relatively safe but since I was afib free why have the procedure?

I purchased the new Kardia Mobile six-lead portable EKG, a miracle of technology. Highly recommended for peace of mind. Just like my watch, I was seeing normal sinus rhythm. So why get an ablation?

A cardiologist had a YouTube video talking about the decision to have an ablation or any medical procedure. How will it affect the quality of your life or the quantity (how long will you live). This was a simple analysis and I like simple. I heard from my cardiologist that the evidence is that an ablation will unlikely extend my life nor will it reduce my lifespan. It was likely to not affect my lifespan. I confirmed this via independent research (be an informed patient, your outcomes will be better). See Dr Pearson’s articles about the CABANA study and the scientific evidence on ablation).  So an ablation and quantity of life were neutral.

Importance Of Quality Of Life

Quality of life was more interesting. Could I do the things wanted to do with my life? Did afib affect my day-to-day life? Could I walk up a couple of flights of stairs without breathing hard? Was I getting tired at 10AM? Could I exercise? At the time, the answer was easy. I could do everything I wanted to do. The afib affect was just about zero except for blood thinner drugs which I suspect I will take forever. No ablation.

Then “the day.” I woke and checked my sleep app on my phone. Heart rate at night jumped. Hmm! I went to the gym. My heart rate while walking jumped too. I did 30 seconds of high-intensity exercise and my heart rate monitor said 205 beats per minute. My heart was beating so hard I had to sit for five minutes. I knew something was wrong. Then I climbed a couple of flights of stairs, something that would never bother me. I felt a shortness of breath. I knew my afib was back. I also knew that the quality of my life was now being affected. I could not do things I wanted to do. My watch and Kardia Mobile EKG confirmed what I knew.

I called my electrocardiologist and scheduled an ablation. He was right. Afib would return.

(Mark tells me that he was taken off his propafenone one month after the second cardioversion because “the PA said I no longer needed it since I was in sinus rhythm.” My practice would have been to continue the propafenone as long as well tolerated and effective in suppressing afib recurrence. In my experience, the recurrence of Mark’s afib may not have been a failure of medical therapy. I treat patients similar to Mark by continuing the anti-arrhythmic drug since the minimal risks are lowered by regular monitoring and I regularly see maintenance of SR.”)

(Other antiarrhythmic medications were mentioned to Mark but as they required a 3 day hospital stay he was not interested.)


Stay tuned: Part two Of Mark’s post will be about the ablation procedure which he recently underwent.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

Mark Goldstein works in the field of cybersecurity in the WashingtonDC area and can be contacted at https://www.linkedin.com/in/markhgoldstein/