The diagnosis of heart failure can be devastating. Why did this happen? What does the future hold? Can I still live a full and active life? These and other questions are dealt with on a regular basis in the Mount Nittany Physician Group Heart Failure Clinic. What better time to bring attention to this program than during the month of February - American Heart Month?
First of all, what is heart failure? The word “failure” makes it sound as if the heart has quit working, but that is not so. Heart failure is a chronic, progressive condition in which the heart muscle is unable to pump enough blood through to meet the body's needs for blood and oxygen. Basically, the heart can't keep up with its workload. It can involve the left or right side of the heart, or both. Common signs or symptoms of heart failure are shortness of breath, persistent cough, swelling of the lower legs or feet or abdomen, unexplained weight gain, or fatigue and weakness with the inability to do your normal activities. The primary diagnostic test is an echocardiogram or heart ultrasound.
Conditions that may lead to heart failure include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, abnormal heart valves, heart muscle disease, and severe lung disease or sleep apnea. These underlying conditions can be challenging to manage, but heart failure can be treated with good results. Medications can improve the signs and symptoms of heart failure and help you live longer. Lifestyle changes, such as exercising, reducing the salt in your diet, managing stress, treating depression and sleep apnea, and especially losing weight, can improve your quality of life.
This is where the Mount Nittany Physician Group Heart Failure Clinic comes into play. After the individual is evaluated by one of our cardiologists, treated, and ready for hospital discharge, they are “enrolled” in the clinic and are seen within one week. The visits are with a Physician Assistant (PA) in conjunction with the cardiologist. The visits are centered on symptoms, vital signs, and weight monitoring, medication adjustment, and education. Screening for depression and sleep apnea is done. Smoking cessation and minimizing alcohol intake are discussed. The primary caregiver is encouraged to participate for ongoing support at home and adherence to the program. The visits are weekly to start. The frequency is then decreased as the individual stabilizes and improves.
Typically a home health nurse also visits the home between visits to the clinic which helps to reinforce behaviors and also helps with the weight monitoring, blood pressure and heart rate checks. This information is sent through TeleHealth to a documentation site which compares the data with all previous checks and alerts us when there is a significant change.
The goal of the clinic is to empower the person to take charge of his or her illness and find ways to remain stable and well-functioning. Another main objective is to eliminate the need for a return visit to the hospital.
Heart failure affects around six million people in the United States. Incidence is equally frequent in men and women, and African-Americans are 1.5 times more likely to develop heart failure than caucasians. Heart failure is chronic, but there is help and support available for patients and their families.
Alex Szymanski, MD, cardiologist, Mount Nittany Physician Group, is the director of the Heart Failure Clinic.
For more information about heart failure and Mount Nittany Physician Group, visit mountnittany.org.