Effectiveness of systematic screening for the detection of atrial fibrillation.
BACKGROUND: Atrial fibrillation (AF) is the most common arrhythmia in clinical practice and is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality. Screening for AF in asymptomatic patients has been proposed as a way of reducing the burden of the disease by detecting people who would benefit from prophylactic anticoagulation therapy prior to the onset of symptoms. However, for screening to be an effective intervention it must improve the detection of AF and provide benefit for those who are detected earlier as a result of screening.
OBJECTIVES: The primary objective of this review was to examine whether screening programmes increase the detection of new cases of AF compared to routine practice. The secondary objectives were to identify which combination of screening strategy and patient population is most effective, as well as assessing any safety issues associated with screening, its acceptability within the target population and the costs involved.
SEARCH METHODS: We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) on The Cochrane Library, MEDLINE (Ovid) and EMBASE (Ovid) up to March 2012. Other relevant research databases, trials registries and websites were searched up to June 2012. Reference lists of identified studies were also searched for potentially relevant studies and we contacted corresponding authors for information about additional published or unpublished studies that may be relevant. No language restrictions were applied.
SELECTION CRITERIA: Randomised controlled trials, controlled before and after studies and interrupted time series studies comparing screening for AF with routine practice in people aged 40 years and over were eligible. Two authors (PM, CT or MF) independently selected the trials for inclusion.
DATA COLLECTION AND ANALYSIS: Assessment of risk of bias and data extraction were performed independently by two authors (PM, CT). Odds ratios (OR) and 95% confidence intervals (CI) were used to present the results for the primary outcome, which is a dichotomous variable. Since only one included study was identified, no meta-analysis was performed.
MAIN RESULTS: One cluster randomised controlled trial met the inclusion criteria for this review. This study compared systematic screening (by invitation to have an electrocardiogram (ECG)) and opportunistic screening (pulse palpation during a general practitioner (GP) consultation for any reason followed by an ECG if pulse was irregular) to routine practice (normal case finding on the basis of clinical presentation) in people aged 65 years or older. The risk of bias in the included study was judged to be low.Both systematic and opportunistic screening of people over the age of 65 years are more effective than routine practice (OR 1.57, 95% CI 1.08 to 2.26 and OR 1.58, 95% CI 1.10 to 2.29, respectively). The number needed to screen in order to detect one additional case compared to routine practice was 172 (95% CI 94 to 927) for systematic screening and 167 (95% CI 92 to 806) for opportunistic screening. Both systematic and opportunistic screening were more effective in men (OR 2.68, 95% CI 1.51 to 4.76 and OR 2.33, 95% CI 1.29 to 4.19, respectively) than in women (OR 0.98, 95% CI 0.59 to 1.62 and OR 1.2, 95% CI 0.74 to 1.93, respectively). No data on the effectiveness of screening in different ethnic or socioeconomic groups were available. There were insufficient data to compare the effectiveness of screening programmes in different healthcare settings.Systematic screening was associated with a better overall uptake rate than opportunistic screening (53% versus 46%) except in the ≥ 75 years age group where uptake rates were similar (43% versus 42%). In both screening programmes men were more likely to participate than women (57% versus 50% in systematic screening, 49% versus 41% in opportunistic screening) and younger people (65 to 74 years) were more likely to participate than people aged 75 years and over (61% versus 43% systematic, 49% versus 42% opportunistic). No adverse events associated with screening were reported.The incremental cost per additional case detected by opportunistic screening was GBP 337, compared to GBP 1514 for systematic screening. All cost estimates were based on data from the single included trial, which was conducted in the UK between 2001 and 2003.
AUTHORS' CONCLUSIONS: Systematic and opportunistic screening for AF increase the rate of detection of new cases compared with routine practice. While both approaches have a comparable effect on the overall AF diagnosis rate, the cost of systematic screening is significantly more than that of opportunistic screening from the perspective of the health service provider. The lack of studies investigating the effect of screening in other health systems and younger age groups means that caution needs to be exercised in relation to the transferability of these results beyond the setting and population in which the included study was conducted.Additional research is needed to examine the effectiveness of alternative screening strategies and to investigate the effect of the intervention on the risk of stroke for screened versus non-screened populations.