Lack of understanding of common heart condition leads to mis
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Poor awareness of a condition known as Heart Failure with preserved Ejection Fraction (HFpEF) - the cause of a half of all cases of heart failure in England - could be hindering opportunities to improve care for patients, say researchers.

HFpEF - pronounced 'heff peff' - is a condition whereby heart muscles are too stiff, preventing the organ's chambers from filling properly with blood. Symptoms include shortness of breath, swelling in the legs, ankles, feet or in the lower back or abdomen, and extreme tiredness.

In a new study published in the British Journal of General Practice, the researchers argue that the problems they have identified may help to explain why the condition is difficult to diagnose and why there is a persistent gap between the national guidance on managing the condition and the kind of service patients receive.

The problems were uncovered in a study in which 50 people with HFpEF, nine carers and 73 clinicians, were interviewed. The clinicians included GPs and nurses from 26 GP practices, as well as heart failure specialist nurses and cardiologists from nine hospitals.

The team used a theoretical framework known as Normalisation Process Theory to make sense of the large amount of data generated by the interviews. The theory considers how healthcare interventions are integrated into routine practice, or 'normalised'.

For any intervention to be routinely adopted, there needs to be a clear understanding - and differentiation between - aspects of the illness, tests and treatments, for example. The team found that this understanding is often missing for the clinicians dealing with patients experiencing HFpEF. In addition, some patients described how they were not aware they had the condition despite severe symptoms and, in some cases, multiple hospital admissions, and were unclear on how the condition can be best managed.

The data confirmed that diagnosis and treatment of HFpEF is not part of everyday practice in general practice, and that the condition was not widely visible, understood, or diagnosed within primary care. The researchers identified three clear tensions that contributed to this.

First, diagnosis of HFpEF is difficult and often delayed. A common method for identifying heart disorders is through the use of an echocardiogram, but in patients with HFpEF, the 'ejection fraction' - the percentage of blood leaving the heart each time it contracts - often appears normal or almost normal, confusing diagnosis. Many clinicians indicated a need for specialist opinion but referral systems were varied and inconsistent.

Patients' descriptions of their diagnoses frequently conveyed a convoluted and protracted series of hospital admissions or visits to specialist clinics. Diagnosis was often slowed down by the presence of other co-existing health conditions, non-specific symptoms and breathlessness.

Second, there are varying perceptions of this complex condition and the data show little shared understanding between clinicians, patients and carers. Several clinicians indicated there is professional scepticism with the label of HFpEF, and most expressed a need for more knowledge and understanding of the condition.

Many patients had partial or incomplete knowledge of the condition, which often related to existing heart problems. Few patients provided a clear understanding of their heart failure.

Finally, once patients are diagnosed, the services they can access are variable. Roles and responsibilities are not well understood and there are big gaps in care. A sense of clinical inertia was revealed within some patient and clinician accounts, apparently due to a lack of evidence-based practice and a feeling that there was little that could be done.