Delays in diagnosis and treatment are the main cause of the feared outcomes, said eight out of 10 experts who responded to a Heart and Stroke Foundation survey released Tuesday.
Nine in 10 experts worry that the health of people living with heart disease or stroke has worsened because of limited access to care during the pandemic.
More than half are concerned about declines in cardiovascular health among people who did not have heart conditions before COVID.
“I am afraid we are going to see a wave of patients who are going to need both more care and more intense care, and we will need new research to figure out how we manage these diseases better,” said Dr. Clare Atzema, a Heart and Stroke Foundation funded researcher and emergency medicine physician at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, in response to the survey.
The foundation surveyed 370 experts, including family physicians, cardiologists, neurologists, and nurses, between Aug. 16 and Sept. 7 on how the pandemic has impacted patient care.
Professionals and researchers are also concerned about inequities in care that the pandemic exacerbated, with COVID hitting lower-income neighbourhoods harder than more affluent ones.
Dr. Justin Ezekowitz, a cardiologist at the Mazankowski Alberta Heart Institute in Edmonton, told Postmedia the survey accurately reflects what he sees in his patients.
Health care avoidance due to fear of COVID has contributed to patients not receiving the care they need.
“We’re concerned about that,” he said. “In the emergency departments and outpatient care we’ve noticed there’s a challenge in keeping up with that care. There’s fewer appointments and fewer procedures that can lead to gaps in care. But we also want them to know we’re always open for business in caring for their hearts.”
Ezekowitz hopes the survey alerts cardiovascular patients in Alberta to the importance of continuing with their recovery program by taking their medications, eating healthy, being active and caring for their mental health.
He acknowledges that inequities in health care will persist after the pandemic but they can be narrowed if the most vulnerable members of society aren’t left behind.
“The solutions are many,” he said. “Building community facilities for exercise, hubs where people can receive health care, widen the availability of digital or tele-health portals, and there’s an element of in-person care we shouldn’t overlook.”
Once the pandemic passes, the system will face major challenges in health-care provider burnout, longer wait times for appointments and procedures, and heavier system burdens from more and sicker patients, the survey found.
To avoid that, Ezekowitz said health care should always come before other priorities in the economy.
“If people aren’t healthy they can’t contribute to the economy or our society. How we allocate (resources) to health care depends on how the government makes those decisions,” he said.