Use HEART, Or Whatever

The HEART score receives a lot of favorable press these days. It generally has face validity. It is probably superior in terms of discriminatory ability versus our venerable candidates such as TIMI and GRACE. It has been well-evaluated in multiple practice settings with reliable predictive value.

But, the final question for a decision instrument distilling a complex clinical scenario down to a five-question substrate for guiding evaluation and disposition – does it safely improve practice?

The answer is no – if you’re Dutch, in these Dutch hospitals.

In a stepped-wedge, cluster-randomized trial, these authors evaluated the effect of using HEART on patient outcomes and healthcare resource utilization. The three HEART risk categories carry general practice recommendations, in which low-risk (0-3) suggest early discharge, intermediate-risk (4-6) noninvasive testing, and high-risk (7-10) early invasive strategies. The comparator, “usual care” was, well, as usual.

With two cohorts comprising approximately 1,800 patients each, there were probably no reliable differences in care or outcomes demonstrated. The HEART low-risk cohort had a 2.0% 30-day incidence of MACE, which is similar to the safety profile described in other studies. However, the real goal of this evaluation was to determine acceptability and impact on resource utilization – and those results are decidedly mixed. Similar rates of early discharge from the ED, ED observation, inpatient admission, and downstream outpatient utilization were observed between the HEART cohort and usual care.

But, this answer from above – no impact on practice – is argued by these authors to be mostly related to non-adherence to the protocol recommendations. Most importantly, they note nearly a third of their low-risk patients were kept for prolonged ED or chest pain unit observation, and a handful more were admitted. The authors suggest there may be room for improvement in resource utilization, but they encountered entrenched cultural practice barriers.

This study was conducted between July 2013 and August 2014 – a long time ago, before most had heard of HEART. It is reasonable to suggest clinicians would now be more comfortable using this score for early discharge from the Emergency Department than during the trial period. It is probably also reasonable to suggest a more robust cultural effort backing practice change would improve adherence to recommendations – a collective departmental agreement associated with educational initiatives. Finally, usual care entailed early discharge of nearly 50% of all patients with chest pain, so your local baseline will affect whether a HEART-based protocol demonstrates improvement.

While these results in this trial are generally negative, what we see here is probably the floor for the effect of HEART on practice. At a minimum, it is as safe as advertised, and probably has room to demonstrate more robust beneficial effects on practice.

“Effect of Using the HEART Score in Patients With Chest Pain in the Emergency Department”

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28437795

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