A new device that detects an abnormal heart rhythm by scanning a patient’s hands could be used to prevent strokes by speeding up diagnosis in GP surgeries.
Called RhythmPad, it’s about the size of a laptop and has two hand shapes cut into the surface. The patient places both hands on the device and tiny sensors then record electrical pulses generated by the heart as they pass through the muscles and nerves beneath the base of the thumb.
From the results, their GP can tell if they may have a condition called atrial fibrillation (AF), which causes about 16,000 strokes a year in the UK.
A new device that detects an abnormal heart rhythm by scanning a patient’s hands could be used to prevent strokes by speeding up diagnosis in GP surgeries
About 25 RhythmPads are already being used in GP waiting rooms across England, and a separate trial involving more than 700 patients is under way at Ashford and St Peter’s Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in Surrey.
At least a million people in the UK are known to have AF, when electrical activity in the heart goes haywire and causes it to beat irregularly. Symptoms include chest pain, dizziness and fatigue, but a significant number have no idea they are ill until they have a stroke.
The cause is unknown, though high blood pressure, chest infections, an overactive thyroid and too much caffeine or alcohol have been cited as possible triggers.
Research suggests people with AF are five times more likely to have a stroke than those who are well.
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This is because as the heart no longer beats regularly, blood that should get pumped around the body instead begins to pool and thicken in the left ventricle — the heart’s main pumping chamber. If a clot then breaks away and travels up the narrow blood vessels that feed the brain, it can block the supply of oxygen-rich blood, causing a stroke.
Common treatments include the blood-thinner warfarin to stop clots forming, and cardioversion, where the heart is shocked into normal rhythm.
The RhythmPad harnesses the same technology used in electrocardiograms (ECGs) to check patients with suspected heart attacks. In these, up to ten electrodes are attached to different parts of the body to measure electrical signals.
The RhythmPad, which costs just over £1,000, gives a slightly less detailed result, but is sufficient to detect abnormal rhythms.
Patients with signs of AF would then be referred for more thorough tests and get treatment earlier.
Research shows more than 28,000 patients have used the devices in GP waiting rooms over the past year.
Cardiocity, the UK-based firm that manufactures the device, says so far almost 200 new cases of AF have been identified. The results are due to be published in a scientific journal next year.
Professor Nicholas Peters, an expert in abnormal heart rhythms at Imperial College London, says the device will be helpful in detecting AF, but warned that some cases would be missed as abnormal rhythms can come and go.
‘This will be helpful and quite appealing to patients, who are increasingly aware of the benefits of automated health screening,’ he says. ‘But atrial fibrillation can occur intermittently and may not be present at the time of use.’
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