Pacemaker upgrade that can spot deteriorating heart health before major illness strikes avoiding possible hospitalisation for 27,000 Britons fitted with the implants

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  • A new upgrade for pacemakers could help save thousands of Britons a year
  • Normal implants record the activity of the patient’s heart and circulation
  • One million Britons are currently living with heart failure

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Pacemakers can be upgraded to automatically warn doctors when a patient is showing signs of deteriorating heart health, which could save thousands of lives each year from emergency hospital treatment.

Normal implants record the activity of a patient’s heart and circulation, and it triggers electrical pulses when necessary to correct the irregular rhythm.

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But now scientists at the University of Manchester have created a program that can monitor vital data collected through sensors attached to pacemakers and send warnings to doctors when patients’ conditions worsen.

Experts are informed through an app, and they can then quickly prescribe medication, which helps keep problems from getting to a critical stage.

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Results from a two-year study of 400 patients, published last week, suggest that the technique could reduce the risk of hospitalization. And it would be easy, say the researchers, to add the program to each of the 27,000 pacemakers used by the British.

About one million Britons live with heart failure, when the organ becomes unable to effectively pump blood around the body.

Pacemakers can now be upgraded to alert doctors to impending heart problems so that medication can be prescribed more quickly to minimize potential damage

One of the most common triggers is a heart attack, which damages the heart muscle, but it can also result from problems with the heart valves, viral infections, and genetics.

One of the most common triggers is a heart attack, which damages the heart muscle, but it can also result from problems with the heart valves, viral infections, and genetics.

One of the most common triggers is a heart attack, which is damage to the heart muscle, but it can also result from problems with the heart valves, viral infections, and genetics.

This leads to a number of problems, including a build-up of fluid in the lungs, causing shortness of breath and fatigue, as the body lacks oxygen. A quarter of heart failure patients do not survive for more than a year, succumbing to kidney failure, infection and, eventually, a fatal cardiac arrest.

While treatment has improved dramatically over the past decade, the condition still causes more than 10,000 deaths in the UK each year. It also causes serious ill health: Because of severe symptoms, 86,000 heart patients per year require emergency hospital treatment.

While a heart transplant is sometimes an option, the usual treatment is medication. This includes medications such as diuretics to help rid the kidneys of excess water and salt. Other drugs stabilize the irregular heart rate.

Patients usually get check-ups with a nurse every six to 12 months, but experts say this is not enough to see the sudden decline often seen in patients.

Dr Fozia Ahmed, consultant cardiologist at Manchester Heart Center and lead author of the study, says: ‘If a patient with heart failure is unwell between appointments, we count on contacting them. Often a small change in symptoms, such as a sudden feeling of tiredness, can be much more serious.

‘But they won’t inform their doctor until it’s too late.’

However, a Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust study showed that pacemakers installed with the new technology helped reduce hospitalizations by 30 percent. According to Dr Ahmed, the data that pacemakers generate when monitoring vital signs such as heart rate, activity level and fluid level is rarely seen or used by healthcare professionals. “They have all this valuable data and no one has even thought of looking at it,” she says.

Dr. Ahmed and his team accessed data from the pacemakers of more than 400 patients under his supervision. It identified high-risk patients who had an irregular heart rate or increased water levels in their lungs. She says: ‘Usually we would change their medicine and this would be enough to avoid an emergency trip to the hospital.’

One patient to benefit from the technology is Fiona Gallacher, a 60-year-old former councilor from Manchester who suffers from heart failure and has had a pacemaker for more than a decade to treat irregular heartbeat.

Fiona, who attended the University of Manchester trial in 2018, says the technology gave her a ‘sense of security’.

She says: ‘Earlier this year I got an alert saying my fluid levels were too high. Immediately I got a call from the doctor who booked me for an appointment the next day.

‘I was given new medication to lower my fluid levels and I’ve been on it ever since.’

She adds: ‘It has given me real peace to know that someone is always watching.’

Dr Ahmed says hospitals across the country have already shown interest in the technology and expect it to be used in specialist units in the next few years.

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