Background: Chronic heart failure is a common clinical condition with high morbidity and mortality. Despite the evidence that appropriate treatment with angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors can improve morbidity, primary care studies show that patients with heart failure are incorrectly diagnosed and inadequately treated.
Aim: To explore general practitioners' accounts of their management of patients with heart failure and identify the perceived obstacles to diagnosis and management.
Methods: We conducted this qualitative study using semi-structured interviews in 18 general practices. The practices were stratified on the basis of size, location, and the level of practice development. The interviews were based on a schedule of open questions based on the literature on diagnosis and management of patients with heart failure. Transcriptions of the audiotaped interviews were independently analysed by two researchers and analysis was based on open coding using a constant comparative approach. Categories were reduced to major themes.
Results: General practitioners suspect heart failure when patients present with breathlessness or ankle oedema. Many general practitioners reported that they would diagnose heart failure after respiratory examination and a positive finding of basal crepitations. Many general practitioners arrange a chest X-ray to establish the diagnosis and some arrange an electrocardiogram. A few general practitioners mentioned that they diagnosed heart failure with a trial of diuretics. Obstacles to diagnosis were mentioned by most general practitioners and included lack of facilities for appropriate investigations (especially echocardiography) and lack of time and expertise. Obstacles to management included lack of time, high cost of drugs, difficulty with diagnosis, selection bias towards younger patients and not having the confidence to initiate angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors. Many general practitioners were unaware of the impact angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors can have on morbidity and mortality.
Conclusions: Although symptoms of heart failure are not sufficiently specific for diagnosing patients with heart failure, many general practitioners in European countries treat people with suspected heart failure on the basis of symptoms and signs alone. This study has identified many obstacles to the diagnosis and management of heart failure that may explain why patients are inadequately managed in primary care. Specific implementation strategies need to be tailored to overcome these obstacles.
Copyright 2002 European Society of Cardiology