Purpose: To examine the time course, contributing factors, and patient responses to decompensated heart failure.
Methods: We studied consecutive patients admitted to a public general hospital with a diagnosis of heart failure. Using a timeline follow-back technique, a nurse interviewer administered a questionnaire shortly after admission, exploring knowledge of a heart failure diagnosis, the symptoms and time course of decompensation, and patient responses to worsening symptoms.
Results: Of 87 patients, 83 (95%) consented to be interviewed. Only 49 (59%) were aware of the diagnosis of heart failure. Symptoms associated with decompensation included dyspnea in 81 patients (98%), edema in 64 patients (77%), and weight gain in 34 patients (41%). Onset of worsening of these symptoms was noted a mean (+/- SD) of 12.4 +/-1.4 days before admission for edema, 11.3 +/-1.6 days for weight gain, and 8.4 +/- 0.9 days for dyspnea. Forty-two patients (57%) reported missing or skipping medication because of various factors, particularly missed outpatient appointments.
Conclusion: Using a timeline follow-back interview, we identified a period of days to weeks between the onset of worsening symptoms and hospital admission for heart failure decompensation. This pattern suggests that there is a time window between symptom exacerbation and admission during which earlier access and intervention might prevent hospitalization in these patients. Medication lapses continue to be an important preventable cause of decompensation leading to admission.