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Oct 09, 2013

Risks of Atrial Fibrillation Procedure Vary by Hospital

Risk of complications from catheter ablation is low among AFib patients, but varies between doctors and hospitals, according to a recent study.

For the millions of Americans living with atrial fibrillation, catheter ablation is often considered an effective treatment option. This minimally invasive procedure uses small, flexible wires to access the heart and destroy heart tissue that may be causing abnormal heartbeats. Catheter ablation is often successful in preventing irregular heartbeat and is relatively safe, carrying low risk of complications. But according to a research study, the doctor and hospital performing the procedure may have a big impact on outcomes.

Recently published in the American Heart Association’s medical journal, Circulation, this study used national data to identify patients with atrial fibrillation who underwent catheter ablation between 2000 and 2010. Researchers identified nearly 94,000 ablation procedures taking place during this period and after analysis, found that the overall risk of complications was 6.29%. Specifically, heart complications were the most common (2.54%) and risk of in-hospital death was very low (0.46%).

But researchers found that risk of complications varied significantly according to who was performing the procedure. If a doctor had performed less than 25 ablations in their career or if a hospital had performed less than 50 procedures, risk of complications was much greater compared to those with more experience.

The good news is that overall risk of complications is generally low. Other studies have suggested that risk of complications from catheter ablations may run anywhere from 1–8%, and this study confirms that risk falls within this range. But what can be done to reduce variation in outcomes among doctors and hospitals?

Findings suggest that future research is needed to identify safety measures that could help reduce risk of complications, especially in hospitals where the procedure is relatively new. Catheter ablations have become increasingly popular over the years and are now performed in most major medical centers around the world. Since this trend is likely to continue, it’s important to learn how we can improve safety across the board, especially in hospitals where risk of complications may be above average.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is atrial fibrillation?

  • Atrial fibrillation is an irregular heart rhythm caused by abnormal, chaotic electrical impulses in the heart’s upper chambers, the atria. These electrical impulses, which interfere with the heart’s natural pacemaker, fire so rapidly the atria cannot beat with a regular rhythm or squeeze out blood effectively. Instead, they merely quiver while the ventricles, the heart’s lower chambers, beat rapidly.
  • What are symptoms of atrial fibrillation?

  • Most common symptoms of atrial fibrillation include chest pain, palpitations, weakness, lightheadedness, confusion, and shortness of breath. These symptoms may be chronic, lasting for long periods of time, or come and go, lasting for only a few minutes at a time. However, some people with atrial fibrillation experience no symptoms at all.

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AFib affects more than 3 million people in the United States.

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