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To determine the most cost-effective method of screening for atrial fibrillation (AF) in the population aged 65 years and over, as well as its prevalence and incidence in this age group. Also to evaluate the relative cost-effectiveness of different methods of recording and interpreting the electrocardiogram (ECG) within a screening programme. Multicentred randomised controlled trial. Purposefully selected general practices were randomly allocated to 25 intervention practices and 25 control practices. Fifty primary care centres across the West Midlands, UK. Patients aged 65 years and over. GPs and practice nurses in the intervention practices received education on the importance of AF detection and ECG interpretation. Patients in the intervention practices were randomly allocated to systematic (n = 5000) or opportunistic screening (n = 5000). Prospective identification of pre-existing risk factors for AF within the screened population enabled comparison between targeted screening of people at higher risk of AF and total population screening. AF detection rates in systematically screened and opportunistically screened populations in the intervention practices were compared with AF detection rate in 5000 patients in the control practices. The screening period was 12 months. Baseline prevalence of AF was 7.2%, with a higher prevalence in males (7.8%) and patients aged 75 years and over (10.3%). The control population demonstrated higher baseline prevalence (7.9%) than either the systematic (6.9%) or opportunistic (6.9%) intervention population. In the control population 47 new cases were detected (incidence 1.04% per year). In the opportunistic arm 243 patients without a baseline diagnosis of AF were found to have an irregular pulse, with 177 having an ECG, yielding 31 new cases (incidence 0.69% per year). A further 44 cases were detected outside the screening programme (overall incidence 1.64% per year). In the systematic arm 2357 patients had an ECG yielding 52 new cases (incidence 1.1% per year). Of these, 31 were detected by targeted screening and a further 21 by total population screening. A further 22 cases were detected outside the screening programme (overall incidence 1.62% per year). In terms of ECG interpretation, computerised decision support software (CDSS) gave a sensitivity of 87.3%, a specificity of 99.1% and a positive predictive value (PPV) of 89.5% compared with the gold standard (cardiologist reporting). GPs and practice nurses performed less well. The only difference in performance between intervention populations and controls was that practice nurses from the control arm performed less well than with intervention practice nurses on interpretation of limb-lead (PPV 38.8% versus 20.8%) and single-lead (PPV 37.7% versus 24.0%) ECGs. The within-trial economic evaluation results showed the lowest incremental cost to be for the opportunistic arm, with an incremental cost-effectiveness ratio of 337 pounds Sterling for each additional case detected compared to the control arm. Opportunistic screening dominated both more intensive screening strategies. Model-based analyses showed small differences in cost and quality-adjusted life-years for different methods and intensities of screening, but annual opportunistic screening resulted in the lowest number of ischaemic strokes and greatest proportion of cases of AF diagnosed. Probabilistic sensitivity results indicated that there was a probability of approximately 60% that screening from the age of 65 years was cost-effective in both men and women. The results of the study indicated that in terms of a screening programme for atrial fibrillation in patients 65 and over, the only strategy that improved on routine practice was opportunistic screening, model-based analyses indicated that there was a probability of approximately 60% of annual opportunistic screening being cost effective. It is suggested that the following topics are worthy of further investigation: the effect of the implementation of a screening programme for AF on the uptake and maintenance of anticoagulation in patients aged 65 years and over; an evaluation of the role of CDSS in the diagnosis of cardiac arrythmias; the best method for routinely detecting paroxysmal AF; ways of improving healthcare professionals' performance in ECG interpretation; development of a robust economic model to incorporate data on new therapeutic agents for use as thromboprophylactic agents for patients with AF, and an evaluation of the relative risk of stroke for patients with incident as opposed to prevalent AF.


Journal article


Health technology assessment (Winchester, England)

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