The world has collectively experienced a historic moment with the COVID-19 pandemic, and only time can fully reveal the extent of its impact. At present, however, there is evidence to support the claim that its effects on health goes beyond the obvious symptoms.
A study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Arrhythmia and Electrophysiology recently found new-onset atrial fibrillation (AFib) in one in 20 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. AFib is a quivering or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
Dr. Pipin Kojodjojo, a cardiologist and heart rhythm specialist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, has seen this phenomenon himself.
“In our clinics, we’ve seen over the last two years many patients presenting with heart rhythm disturbances or arrhythmia, one of which is atrial fibrillation, and many of these patients are coming with their arrhythmias for the first time a few weeks after developing a COVID-19 infection,” he said in an interview with BusinessWorld.
“Now whether this is a transient phenomenon whereby the arrhythmia gets better in the first year or it really creates a whole new pandemic of heart rhythm conditions over the next few years? We don’t know and we will see what happens over the next few years. I think the pandemic has a very long tail and I think that it has created potentially a lot more health problems for us in the years to come.”
The situation is made more difficult by how unaware the average person is about heart rhythm problems in general. “I think most people don’t realize that life depends on our heart beating regularly, and that regular beating is actually driven by the presence of electricity,” Dr. Kojodjojo said.
“For the general public, for a lot of them, their understanding of heart diseases is quite narrow. Most people think of blockages in the heart or coronary artery disease to define heart disease. Now what they don’t understand is that coronary disease is only one out of many types of heart disease. Just by having no blockages doesn’t mean that your heart is healthy.”
He explained that there are conditions that affect the strength of the heart muscles and those that affect the heart valves. If someone’s heartbeat is too slow or too fast or irregular, these are all considered as heart rhythm abnormalities that could result in symptoms such as dizziness, blackouts, palpitations, and in the worst cases, cardiac arrest or sudden death.
Fortunately, it is easier than ever for people experiencing these symptoms to check the health of their heart. Dr. Kojodjojo noted that even the most important diagnostic tool in their arsenal, the ECG, or electrocardiogram, can now be used through smartwatches.
“You don’t always feel the palpitations all the time or you don’t feel dizzy all the time. And so a lot of smart technology has allowed us to increase the detection of these conditions. Now we supplement the ECG diagnosis with better treatments for heart rhythm abnormalities,” he said.
Other key advancements in the field, he explained, include significant improvements in treatments and implanted medical devices. Through a procedure called catheter ablation, patients with irregular heart rhythms can be treated with a high degree of success, at least three or four times better than taking lifelong oral medication. And through breakthroughs in technology, a new kind of catheter ablation called pulse field ablation can correct atrial fibrillation without the side effects of older, conventional treatments.
Similarly, pacemakers and implants have gotten so sophisticated, with pacemakers now as small as one-sixths of a AAA battery, which allows for a quicker implant and much faster recovery. Mount Elizabeth Hospitals, as one of the Asia-Pacific’s most prominent medical centers, offers the latest and most up-to-date innovations and technologies along with a large team of dedicated professionals and specialists, which Dr. Kojodjojo is part of.
“Patients at Mount Elizabeth Hospitals have access to the latest ablation technology that are available anywhere in the world. In addition to that, we have access to a whole range of implants, which covers everything from pacemakers to left atrial appendage occluders to ICDs,” he said.
“There are more than 10 heart rhythm specialists in Mount Elizabeth Hospitals who collectively have done more than 10,000 cases. So we have a very experienced team of doctors and allied health team looking after the patients with the latest advancements in technology and I think that makes it a good center for the treatment of heart rhythm conditions.”
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