Doctors call for urgent stroke screening programme in bid to prevent 2,000 deaths a year
GPs would check pulses of everyone over 65 and refer those with irregular pulses for further testing
A national screening programme for over-65s should be 'urgently' introduced to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by stroke, according to medical experts.
The call to the UK and Scottish governments was made after a meeting of more than 120 stroke specialists from around the country.
Strokes cost the NHS about 2.8 billion a year, while annual costs due to lost productivity, disability and informal care are around 4.2 billion
The meeting, convened by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh (RCPE), was held to find methods of improving diagnosis and treatment for atrial fibrillation (AF), a heart condition which significantly increases the risk of stroke.
It is the most common, sustained, heart disorder and the risk factors increase with age.
Experts said blood-thinning drugs can be used to treat the condition but it is often under-treated as it does not always display symptoms.
The two-day meeting held last week allowed them to review the current evidence and produce clinical guidance for the NHS.
Recommendations reached include the need for a national screening programme. Experts said the most cost-effective way of doing so would be to target all over-65s by checking pulses in GP surgeries.
Further tests would then be arranged for those with irregular pulses.
Dr Scott Ramsay, consultant in stroke medicine, said: 'Atrial fibrillation is often a silent condition with serious consequences in the form of stroke.
'Its symptoms can go undetected, there has been uncertainty amongst doctors regarding how to treat it effectively and a lack of medical and public awareness about sufferers' significantly increased risk of developing a stroke.
'The goal of treating atrial fibrillation is primarily to reduce the current unacceptable levels of avoidable stroke and the disability and premature death it causes.
'This is an issue of national significance and we have reached consensus that the most effective way of doing this would be for national screening programmes to be introduced throughout the UK for all people over 65 as a matter of urgency.'
How to spot a stroke
Another of their key recommendations was to increase the use of anti-coagulant treatments (blood-thinning drugs) and improve methods of engaging patients in managing their condition.
They also warned that aspirin has proven to be 'ineffective' in preventing stroke in AF and should not be used as an alternative to anticoagulants.
The RCPE UK Consensus Statement on Atrial Fibrillation said patients currently being prescribed aspirin for the condition should be reviewed and offered anticoagulation or have aspirin withdrawn.
Dr Ramsay added: 'It is clear that the evidence has moved on and historic methods of stroke prevention in atrial fibrillation, such as prescribing aspirin instead of anticoagulants have proven to be ineffective but have significant side effects.
'For all patients in atrial fibrillation, except those few at truly low risk of stroke, anticoagulation is the only effective stroke prevention and should be offered as treatment.'
AF arises from an irregular heartbeat and presents symptoms of palpitations, chest pain, breathlessness and dizziness.
It is estimated to affect two per cent of the UK population at any one time.