Black people with atrial fibrillation (AF) experience vastly higher rates of serious coronary events, so it’s not surprising that a growing number of clinical studies are aggressively tackling the complex issues around the impact of race—as well as gender—on management and outcomes of the heart rhythm disorder.
Paradox prompts questions
Researchers refer to it as the “AFib Paradox”—the fact that studies have consistently reported a lower occurrence of AF among blacks compared with whites despite African Americans experiencing so many of the adverse events associated with the disease, including stroke, heart failure, hypertension and diabetes. But the “less AFib–more adversity” irony is one of many disparities to emerge from studies that have examined differences in the delivery of healthcare to blacks vs. whites and men vs. women. Indeed, why are blacks with AF who are hospitalized for heart failure less likely to be prescribed warfarin at discharge than whites, despite American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association and Heart Failure Society of America recommendations for anticoagulation therapy? And why are women, who have higher rates of hospitalization than men following AF ablation, less likely to undergo repeat ablation or cardioversion as a means to restore rhythm?
“I don’t think we can necessarily pass judgment on the healthcare system every time we see disparities based on race or sex,” offers Mintu Turakhia, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford University and director of cardiac electrophysiology at the Palo Alto VA Health Care System. “Instead, these gaps tell us that we need to take a deeper dive into why they’re occurring, and those questions can only be answered through more [treatment] preference-based studies.”
No study has done more to spotlight the magnitude of those gaps than ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities).
In its latest analysis of data collected by epidemiologists over the past 20 years, the study found that blacks with AF have nearly double the risk of stroke, heart failure, coronary heart disease and mortality from all causes compared with whites (JAMA Cardiol 2016;1:442-50). While researchers were well aware African Americans faced an increased risk of stroke, what surprised them were the findings that heart failure, coronary heart disease and mortality pose equally as great health dangers. Jared Magnani, MD, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and lead author of ARIC, puts the numbers in context: “For me, they’re a loud and clear signal that we are missing profound opportunities to prevent adversity in blacks with atrial fibrillation,” he maintains. “There has been significant social strife by race over the past summer, and [the United States] is far from done grappling with how it addresses and cares for its most vulnerable citizens. That’s where our interventions are most imperative and where we can make the most significant difference.”
The goal of improving the quality and consistency of healthcare delivery regardless of race is also writ large in the work of Kevin Thomas, MD, director of health disparities research at Duke Clinical Research Institute and author of several studies in the field. Anticoagulation therapy is a case in point. One of his investigations reported that black patients with AF hospitalized for heart failure were 24 percent less likely to receive guideline-recommended warfarin at discharge compared with white patients—a finding Thomas and colleagues described as “concerning” in light of the black population’s significant risk of thromboembolic stroke (J Am Heart Assn 2013;2:e000200). “One of the things my group is working on is trying to understand how decisions are made about anticoagulation therapy at both the provider and patient levels,” he says. “And we think that empowering patients to take control of their care as well as educating providers and holding them accountable for quality metrics are tenable solutions to the problem. Quality, theoretically, doesn’t have a race or gender to it.”
In an era of value-based medicine and accountable care, Thomas’s AF-heart failure study—which analyzed more than 135,000 hospitalizations from 2006 to 2012—also has cost implications. It found, for example, that black patients had lower in-hospital mortality and longer lengths-of-stay compared with whites. As for possible