It is an unpredictable condition that can cause the heart to race and lead to a stroke – yet now, with the touch of a finger, University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy students can tell within 30 seconds if a person may have a dangerously irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation or AFib.
“It is very important, because it places you at a five times higher risk for stroke, yet you can have atrial fibrillation and not know it,” says Barry Bleske, PharmD, professor and chair for Department of Pharmacy Practice and Administrative Sciences in the College of Pharmacy.
Until recently, testing for the condition was confined to doctors’ offices or hospitals. The new device can rapidly detect within 30 seconds if someone is suffering from AFib, even if they have never experienced a symptom. Its size – it is about the length of a pen – and speed make it ideal for community health screenings offered by pharmacy students, Bleske says.
Bleske and Joe Anderson, Pharm D, associate professor and interim assistant dean for Curricular Affairs in the College, recently began a two-year study to see if those screenings can improve diagnosis of AFib in a public health setting.
“Three to six million adults in the U.S. have AFib, but a quarter of them have no symptoms or simply do not recognize the symptoms,” Anderson says. “They may feel their heart racing or that they are short-winded and fatigued, but they chalk it up to other things like getting older or drinking too much caffeine.”
The heart has four chambers. Normally, two upper (the atria) and two lower (ventricles) march along in sync, but with atrial fibrillation, something goes wrong and the beats become irregular. The two upper chambers might begin to race up to 600 beats per minute, which may cause the lower chambers to beat rapidly such that they can’t provide enough blood flow to the rest of the body , Bleske says.
“Blood flow will actually slow down within the upper chambers,” he says. “Clots may develop and then travel to the brain, causing a stroke.”
That’s where the screenings can save lives. With the new technology, patients place their finger on the device for 30 seconds. The device acts as a miniature electrocardiogram, or EKG, and reads the electrical impulses passing through the fingertips. The smartphone app then synchronizes with the reading and uses a FDA cleared algorithm to determine if the patient may or may not have AFib. Whether or not they suffer from AFib, quick and easy access for patients also opens up opportunities to educate them on heart health.
“It is an opportunity to educate people,” Bleske says. “We can talk about their medications. If they are not on medications, we can talk to them about seeing their provider to discuss what options are available. Once known, the condition is very treatable. There are a number of life-saving medicines out there that are highly effective at preventing strokes.”
This also reinforces the learning that our students receive in the classroom when they can go out and apply it to actual patients in the community, Anderson says. Patient outreach and education is a critical component of the College of Pharmacy’s mission. Each year, the college hosts some 20 student-driven clinics, providing health screenings for up to 1,500 people, he says. There are also plans to study the feasibility of testing at-risk populations in community pharmacies as part of fourth year Doctor of Pharmacy student community pharmacy clinical rotations, he says.
“To our knowledge, we are the only institution doing this type of health screening,” Bleske says. “We are excited about the scalability of this. Our hope is that we pilot this and show its feasibility, and then 140 other colleges of pharmacy pick up these screenings. We want to have every pharmacy student throughout the country monitoring patients. We believe it is going to be a game changer for community pharmacy practices and importantly a life-saver for the patients who are identified with Afib.”