This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.
Use of specialist nurses to optimise drug dosages using protocols in people with heart failure was more effective than dose monitoring by other health professionals. These nurses had advanced practice certification. This finding came from a review of seven trials with more than 1600 patients.
International guidelines recommend two or three first-line medications for people with heart failure. These drugs (beta-adrenergic blocking agents, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers) can improve survival and are usually started at low doses by cardiologists and then gradually increased over time, a process managed between cardiologists and GPs. This can be a prolonged process because outpatient appointments may be infrequent and some GPs are reluctant to increase drug doses due to concerns about potential side effects. Using specialist nurses to optimise dosing in frequent outpatient appointments or home visits, through protocols and consultation with cardiologists, reduced deaths and hospital admissions. It is not clear how much this may have been due to the increased number and frequency of appointments, the protocols used or improved communication with the cardiology team.
Specialist nurse titration of drug dosing offers an effective and safe alternative way to deliver care to people with heart failure. No evidence was available on cost-effectiveness of these different approaches.
Why was this study needed?
Heart failure means that the heart is not as effective as it normally would be. This can be due to problems with the heart muscle (such as weakening) or mechanical problems in the heart (such as damaged valves). Around 900,000 people in the UK have heart failure.
The outlook for people with heart failure can be very poor – 30 to 40% of people die within a year of diagnosis – so getting the condition under control is important. For people with mild to moderate heart failure, drug doses are largely managed by GPs. An Australian study found that GPs often didn’t prescribe high enough doses because they were worried about potential side effects and how they would interact with other medications.
This systematic review investigated whether specialist nurses using hospital protocols – rather than GPs – could safely and effectively manage the dose increases of first-line heart failure medicines to the optimal dosage and consult with cardiologists when required.
What did this study do?
This systematic review included seven randomised controlled trials (with a total of 1684 participants) comparing the management of drug doses by either nurses or another health professional. Included studies compared beta-adrenergic blocking agents, angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors and/or angiotensin receptor blockers.
The people included in the studies had heart failure caused by the left side of the heart not pumping as effectively as it should – left ventricular systolic dysfunction – which is also referred to as heart failure with reduced ejection fraction.
This systematic review was carried out to the usual high methodological standards of the Cochrane Collaboration.
What did it find?
- Four out of seven studies (556 participants) examined all-cause hospital admissions. People in the nurse management group experienced a 20% lower rate of all-cause hospital admissions (risk ratio [RR] 0.80, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.72 to 0.88) and half the number of hospital admissions related to heart failure (RR 0.51, 95% CI 0.36 to 0.72) compared to the usual care group.
- Six studies (902 participants) measured all-cause mortality, which was found to be 34% lower in the nurse management group (RR 0.66, 95% CI 0.48 to 0.92) than usual care. The authors calculated that 27 deaths could be avoided for every 1000 people receiving nurse managed dosing.
- Three studies (370 participants) reported how long people were “event free” (e.g. without a flare up of their condition). People receiving nurse management were 40% more likely to remain event free compared to usual-care (RR 0.60, 95% CI 0.46 to 0.77).
- Double the number of people reached the target dose of beta-adrenergic blocking agents in the nurse managed group (RR 1.99, 95% CI 1.61 to 2.47), according to five studies (966 participants), but there was a high risk of bias in these studies so the result may not be reliable.
- People receiving nurse managed dosing reached the optimal dose of beta-adrenergic blocking agents in half the time of people receiving usual care.
- Two studies investigated adverse events, one found that there were no adverse events, and the other did not specify the type or severity of the adverse event. So no firm conclusions could be drawn about potential harms.
What does current guidance say on this issue?
NICE’s 2010 guidance recommends that people with heart failure are first treated with angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and beta-blockers. Both drugs should be started on a low dose, gradually increased whilst carefully monitoring the person’s condition. NICE guidance does not specify who should manage people’s doses.
Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) are only recommended if treatment with ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers has not been successful or the person experienced side effects from ACE inhibitors. Before starting ARBs, NICE recommends that GPs seek specialist advice.
What are the implications?
This systematic review demonstrates that specialist cardiology nurses and those designated as advanced practice nurses who titrate drug doses for heart failure patients is safe and highly effective. It is not clear how much this may have been due to the increased number and frequency of appointments, the protocols used or improved communication with the cardiology team.
A cost analysis was not included in this review. Managing people’s condition better and reducing complications (such as hospitalisation) could potentially reduce costs, although there will be set-up costs such as training nurses to the advanced standards required to prescribe medication, in addition to the costs of the extra nurse-led outpatient or home visits. It is also possible that staff-substitution may be accompanied by higher costs, due to longer consultations or more frequent visits.
A 2015 nationwide survey found that 18.1% of people couldn’t get an appointment with their GP within a week. So transferring duties – where it is safe to do so – to other members of the team has the potential to ease pressure on GP appointments and in this case to deliver better care.
Citation and Funding
Driscoll A, Currey J, Tonkin A, Krum H. Nurse-led titration of angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors, beta-adrenergic blocking agents, and angiotensin receptor blockers for people with heart failure with reduced ejection fraction. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015;12:CD009889.
Donnelly L. Soaring numbers struggling with GP opening hours. The Telegraph. 17 January 2016.
NICE. Chronic heart failure in adults: management. CG108. London: National Institute for Health and Care Excellence; 2010.
Phillips SM, Marton RL, Tofler GH. Barriers to diagnosing and managing heart failure in primary care. Med J Aust. 2004;181(2):78-81.
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