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A prescription for heart failure success: Change the name



– Does heart failure’s name doom any progress against the disease?

That was the provocative premise advanced by Lynne Warner Stevenson, MD, who suggested that efforts to prevent, diagnose, and treat the disease would go better if it could only jettison that unfortunate word “failure,” its hard-wired albatross.

Dr. Stevenson offered several potentially superior alternatives, including cardiac insufficiency, heart dysfunction, and her favorite, cardiomyopathy.

Dr. Lynne Warner Stevenson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Cardiomyopathy and Heart Failure Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston Mitchel L. Zoler/Frontline Medical News

Dr. Lynne Warner Stevenson

“I used to be a purist and felt you couldn’t call it cardiomyopathy if the patient also had coronary or valve disease, but now we see it all the time – ischemic cardiomyopathy or valvular cardiomyopathy,” she said at a meeting held by the Heart Failure Association of the ESC.

“Is heart failure still the best diagnosis” for the entire spectrum of disease that most patients progress through ,including the many patients in earlier stages of the disease who do not have a truly failing heart? “Perhaps cardiomyopathy is the condition and heart failure is the transition,” she proposed.

To Dr. Stevenson, it’s more than just semantics.

“Words are hugely powerful,” she explained in an interview following her talk. “I think patients do not want to be seen as having heart failure. They don’t want to think of themselves as having heart failure. I think it can make them delay getting care, and it makes them ignore the disease. I worry about that a lot. I also worry that patients don’t provide support to each other that they could. Patients tend to hide that they have heart failure. We need to come up with a term that does not make patients ashamed of their disease.”

Part of the problem, Dr. Stevenson said, is that the name heart failure can be very misleading depending on the stage of the disease that patients have. Patients with stage B (presymptomatic) disease and those with mild stage C disease “don’t see themselves as having heart failure,” as having a heart that has failed them. “We need to be able to convince these patients that they have a disease that we need to treat carefully and aggressively.”

Additionally, labeling tens of millions of people as having stage A heart failure, which is presymptomatic and occurs before the heart shows any sign of damage or dysfunction, is also counterproductive, maintained Dr. Stevenson, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Cardiomyopathy and Heart Failure Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

“So many people are at risk of developing heart failure,” she noted, including patients with hypertension, diabetes, or coronary artery disease. To label them all as already also having heart failure at that stage “tends to make them ignore the disease that we are trying to get them to pay attention to. Telling patients they have the disease that we are trying to prevent doesn’t help.”

Calling the whole range of the disease heart failure also confuses patients and others. “Patients ask me, ‘How can I have heart failure without any symptoms?’ ‘My ejection fraction improved to almost normal; do I still have heart failure?’ and ‘I don’t understand how my heart muscle is strong but my heart is failing,’ ” she said

For Dr. Stevenson, perhaps the biggest problem is the stigma of failure and the way that word ties a huge weight to the disease that prompts patients and caregivers alike to relegate it to a hidden and neglected place.

“It’s failure. Who is proud to have heart failure? Where are the marches for heart failure? Where are the celebrity champions for heart failure? We have celebrities who are happy to admit that they have Parkinson’s disease, ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis], drug addiction, and even erectile dysfunction, but no one wants to say they have heart failure. We can’t get any traction behind heart failure. It doesn’t sound very inspiring,” an issue that even percolates down to dissuading clinicians from pursuing a career in heart failure care. Young people do not aspire to go into failure, she said.

“We need to call it something else.”

On Twitter @mitchelzoler

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