Sydney Nursing School at the heart of cardiovascular research

Top researchers from the University of Sydney Nursing School have been awarded a $200,000 grant to further their research in preventing stroke through early detection of atrial fibrillation via technologies such as smartphones.

Dr Lis Neubeck, Professor Robyn Gallagher, and Dr Nicole Lowres from Sydney Nursing School, and Professor Ben Freedman, Sydney Medical School, were awarded the grant at the NSW Cardiovascular Research Network State of the Heart Showcase and Awards ceremony this week hosted by NSW Minister for Health, the Hon. Jillian Skinner MP.

University of Sydney Nursing School
Sydney Nursing School Dean Donna Waters with grant recipients Lis Neubeck and Robyn Gallagher (Photo credit: University of Sydney)

Led by Dr Lis Neubeck, their research focuses on diagnosing an irregular heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation), which causes blood clots to form in the heart and travel to the brain to cause a stroke.

“It’s been shown that strokes can be prevented through early identification of atrial fibrillation (AF) and up to two-thirds of people with AF don’t know they have it,” Dr Neubeck explains.

“We need a way to find people who have asymptomatic AF before they get a stroke, since treatments with blood thinning medications are very effective in preventing strokes.”

The team have pioneered a handheld smartphone electrocardiograph (iECG) device to screen for unknown asymptomatic AF in pharmacies.

“The simplest way of testing for atrial fibrillation is a pulse check, but it is not a very sensitive method. As an alternative, we’ve been investigating an electrocardiogram (ECG) device which attaches to a smartphone. In just 30 seconds, the hand-held device can check the ECG and tell if the rhythm is likely to be atrial fibrillation.”

Dr Neubeck and colleagues have previously shown how the device can be used by community pharmacists and practice nurses to screen for atrial fibrillation. Their future research will focus on translation of this research into real-world practice.

“International guidelines suggest everyone over 65 should have a check-up to see if they have AF, since it’s when your risk goes up,” Dr Neubeck said.

“Screening with a smartphone device is quick and cost effective, so suitable to use as part of a national screening program for atrial fibrillation—which is necessary to prevent stroke deaths. Screening for AF in this way could prevent thousands of strokes every year.”

Atrial fibrillation affects five percent of people over 65 and while early identification has been shown to prevent strokes, screening is rarely implemented. One in three strokes is AF-related, and the associated annual health system cost is $874 million.

Together with partners from the George Institute for Global Health, UTS, UNSW, and the NSW Agency for Clinical Innovation, the research network led by Dr Neubeck will develop ways to scale the intervention, so the maximum numbers of strokes can be prevented.

Cardiovascular disease remains a major health concern for NSW claiming the lives of women, men and children, with thirty per cent of all deaths in NSW currently attributable to cardiovascular disease.

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