The rapid transition to and reliance on telehealth to manage patients with heart failure during the COVID-19 pandemic does not appear to impact clinical outcomes, according to real-world data.
HF outpatients managed with telehealth visits did not show a significantly higher adjusted risk for subsequent ED visits, hospital admissions, intensive care use, or death at 30 and 90 days, the investigators reported in JACC: Heart Failure.
“Telehealth is safe and effective in probably some of our highest-risk patients who traditionally have needed hands-on, in-person assessment and evaluation – those patients who have heart failure – so we shouldn’t be afraid to use it all the time, not when needed as a minimum,” senior author Brett W. Sperry, MD, said in an interview.
Heart failure is a perfect case example to examine telehealth because the chronic condition not only requires continual assessment and medication adjustments, but HF patients are also particularly vulnerable to complications related to COVID-19 infection, he noted. A small, single-center report on telehealth early in Italy’s outbreak showed fewer HF hospitalizations and similar mortality, compared with in-person visits in 2019 but, overall, few data exist.
The current analysis took a wider sweep, comparing HF patients seen from March 15 to June 15, 2020 with those seen during the same time period in 2018 and 2019 at 16 cardiology clinics in Saint Luke’s Health System, which serves the Kansas City metro area and surrounding suburbs in Missouri and Kansas.
Among 8,263 unique patients and 15,421 visits identified, telehealth was not used in 2018 or 2019 but accounted for 88.5% of visits during the study period in 2020, 70% of which were by telephone and 30% of which were by video.
“We had zero telehealth before March 2020 and basically built an entire telehealth apparatus in a week or 2,” explained Dr. Sperry. “Initially it was a lot of telephone visits while we were getting the video stuff figured out, which is reflected in the paper, and then went to mostly video visits.”
Despite the pandemic, however, more outpatients were seen in 2020 than in 2018 and 2019 (4,063 vs. 3675 and 3,619 patients, respectively). This likely reflects the shift of personnel and resources from hospital duties to outpatient virtual visits, which were strongly recommended by the Heart Failure Society of America and other professional societies to manage patients during the pandemic, he said.
Unadjusted analyses demonstrated fewer ED visits and hospital admissions and more ICU admissions and all-cause mortality in 2020 than in previous years.
A propensity-matched analysis involving 4541 pairs of patients, however, showed admissions to the ED or hospital were lower after the telehealth visits than after in-person visits at 30 days (6.8% vs 10.4%; P < .001) and 90 days (17.9% vs. 23.3%; P < .001).
Among hospitalized patients, there was no difference between telehealth and in-patient visits in ICU admissions at 30 or 90 days. Mortality was also similar at 30 days (0.8% vs. 0.7%; P = .465) and 90 days (2.9% vs. 2.4%; P = .133).
Dr. Sperry said the pendulum has swung since 2020 and that the team is back to seeing most people in person, with about 15% of his clinic visits that day done via video. Standardized quality of life assessments prior to outpatient visits can help triage patients to telehealth in-patient visits, but in-person visits will still be needed for cases with greater acuity, older patients, and those with limited or no access to quality telephone videos or the internet.
“It isn’t for everyone,” Dr. Sperry said. “You’re going to need some kind of hybrid model with both in-person and video visits available and be able to offer both for patients and be able to titrate that as the pandemic changes in the future.”
Ankit Bhatia, MD, an advanced HF cardiologist at Christ Hospital in Cincinnati, who was not part of the study, said in an interview the use of telehealth in 85% of patients may be higher than the norm at most centers but that the study provides much-needed data.
“I’m really appreciative of a study like this because we were all in such a rush last year to get patients seen that very few people thought how could we design a study to really ensure we’re treating our patients within an equipoise with prior practices,” he said.
“The fact that they were able to do that [85%] and demonstrate in a propensity-matched analysis that outcomes were similar really just shows that telehealth is a strategy that we can use well in patients with heart failure to extend our ability to take care of them,” said Dr. Bhatia, a member of the American College of Cardiology Health Care Innovation Council.
Even beyond the pandemic, he said, the trend in health care is for patients to want health care delivered closer to home and for health care systems to become more patient centric. “This accelerated that but what I think this study showed me was that it’s okay to have this be part of my care model and I’m not sacrificing on my patient care if I choose to intersperse telehealth with inpatient visits.”
Besides the inherent limitations of retrospective studies, the authors noted that diagnoses in the study were based on ICD-10 codes and that subsequent ED visits or hospitalizations outside the single system may have been underreported. A further limitation is that they could not identify the cause of death or reasons for hospital encounters.
“Further data are needed to confirm the relative safety of a telehealth strategy in the HF population over a more sustained period of time, although we hypothesize that greater risks would be observed early after telehealth visits, where patients’ acuity might be misjudged,” they wrote.
Dr. Sperry is a consultant to Pfizer and Alnylam. Coauthor John A. Spertus is the principal investigator of grants from National Institutes of Health, Abbott Vascular, and the American College of Cardiology Foundation; is a consultant to Janssen, Novartis, Amgen, Myokardia, AstraZeneca, Bayer, and Merck; serves on the scientific advisory board of United Healthcare and the board of directors for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City; owns the copyright to the Kansas City Cardiomyopathy Questionnaire, Seattle Angina Questionnaire, and Peripheral Artery Questionnaire; and has an equity interest in Health Outcomes Sciences. All other authors and Dr. Bhatia reported no relevant conflicts.
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