SUNDAY, Nov. 16, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- There's been a steep increase in the number of Americans seeking emergency care for the heart rhythm disorder atrial fibrillation, a new study finds.
Atrial fibrillation is the most common kind of irregular heartbeat and can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related problems, experts say.
In the new study, researchers led by Dr. Sourabh Aggarwal, chief resident of the department of internal medicine at Western Michigan University School of Medicine, tracked nationwide data from 2006 to 2011.
The investigators found that the rate of ER visits for atrial fibrillation rose 24 percent during that time -- from 133 visits per 100,000 people to 165 visits per 100,000 people. In total, more than 2.7 million hospital admissions for atrial fibrillation were recorded from 2006 to 2011, the researchers said.
However, there was also some good news: While hospital admissions for atrial fibrillation increased, the death rate among those hospitalized patients fell from 1.18 percent in 2006 to 0.97 percent in 2011. According to Aggarwal's team, that suggests that patients are receiving improved care.
Patients with atrial fibrillation were more likely to be admitted to hospital if they were elderly, female, were covered by Medicare or Medicaid, or lived in low-income areas, cities or in the northeast.
The study was to be presented in Chicago on Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association.
"The huge demographic and geographic variations highlight the unmet need for interventions to decrease hospitalization rates," Aggarwal said in an AHA news release.
Experts said the findings are not surprising.
"As our population continues to grow and age, the finding of newly recognized atrial fibrillation and this common rhythm disturbance's potential complications will continue to contribute to ongoing medical admissions to many hospitals," said Dr. David Friedman, chief of heart failure services at North Shore-LIJ's Franklin Hospital in Valley Stream, N.Y.
But Friedman also believes that improvements in care -- better blood-thinning medications, devices that help monitor heart rhythms, and minimally invasive procedures that help ease heart rhythm irregularities -- will all help reduce illness and death linked to atrial fibrillation.
Dr. Charles Lawrence is chairman of the department of emergency medicine at Interfaith Medical Center in New York City. He believes that patients with atrial fibrillation may need to be better educated as to how to deal with the condition.
"Patients with atrial fibrillation come to the ER because they feel uncomfortable and unsure about whether their medication is working," Lawrence said. "Patients with rapid heartbeat are at increased risk for stroke, heart failure and blood clots, but patients with pre-existing atrial fibrillation with slow irregular heartbeats who are taking their blood-thinner medication as prescribed and are at lower risk often end up in the ER anyway," he added.
According to Lawrence, "the study calls attention to the need for better education and outpatient follow-up so patients can get their questions answered and have a better understanding of when they do need to come to the ER."
Experts note that findings presented at medical meetings are often considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute has more about atrial fibrillation.