Pioneering research into heart failure in collaboration with Cambridge and Manchester yields first results

Poor awareness of a condition known as Heart Failure with preserved Ejection Fraction (HFpEF) – the cause of half of all cases of heart failure in England – could be hindering opportunities to improve care for patients, according to researchers from the Universities of Keele, Cambridge and Manchester. 

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. It affects half of the 920,000 people in the UK with heart failure but frequently goes undiagnosed. 

The National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) recommends that ‘integrated’ care should be provided for HFpEF, bringing together specialist clinicians with GPs and primary care, and including support for patients to help them manage their condition. 

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. 

Keele’s Professor Carolyn Chew-Graham, who co-authored the research, said: “This study helps raise the profile of HFpEF, a condition which is poorly understood and may be missed, and thus people may not be treated appropriately.  

“Our findings highlight the need for primary and secondary care clinicians to work together to identify and manage people with HFpEF to improve their outcome, and we have made suggestions about systems can be improved to support both patients and clinicians.” 

The problems were uncovered in a study carried out in the East of England, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands, 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. 

Lead author Dr Emma Sowden from the University of Manchester said: “Our research paints a picture of a cloud of clinical uncertainty surrounding the diagnosis and treatment of HFpEF, which often leads to a failure to manage the condition. 

“Patients’ descriptions of their diagnoses suggest they are far more convoluted than the clinical guidelines spell out, leading to a protracted series of hospital admissions or specialist visits.” 

Professor Christi Deaton, Chief Investigator from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow at Wolfson College, added: “We heard some clinicians asking: what’s the point of diagnosis if there is no specific treatment? But identification of HFpEF is critical if we are going to develop new treatments and ways for patients to better manage their condition, and there are actions that we can take now.” 

The study is part of a larger programme of work on HFpEF, which aims to improve the management of people with HFpEF in primary care. The programme is funded by the NIHR School for Primary Care Research.