Thousands of people with the most common heart rhythm problem are at risk of strokes because GPs are taking the ‘cheap and easy’ option of prescribing them aspirin, experts warn.
Their report estimates that a total of 360,000 with a life-threatening heart condition called atrial fibrillation (AF) are going untreated or wrongly using aspirin.
AF affects around 1.2million Britons, and causes around one in seven first-time strokes.
It causes the upper chambers of the heart to beat much faster than normal and out of rhythm, which allows blood to pool and generate tiny blood clots that can trigger a stroke.
A new report says anti-clotting drugs are the most effective way of stopping AF strokes, yet GPs persist in prescribing aspirin.
Dr Alan Begg, a GP with special interest in cardiology who helped produce the report, said studies show that aspirin is less effective but is ‘cheap and easy’.
He said: ‘It is extremely concerning that GPs often seem to be choosing the “easy option” rather than better stroke protection.
‘Even experienced doctors falsely believe they are fully protecting people by recommending aspirin, but in AF it does not offer the best protection against strokes.’
While anti-clotting drugs are not the best solution in every case, the report says three out of four patients in Britain could be taking them, but only half are doing so.
The remaining patients are prescribed aspirin or given no treatment at all, which means 360,000 are still at risk of stroke.
The cost of such strokes to the NHS is £11,900, says the report.
Consultant cardiologist Dr Paul Kalra from Portsmouth, a member of the panel of UK experts that produced the report, said the NHS now recommends new anti-clotting drugs in addition to warfarin, which has been used for decades.
He said aspirin carries the risk of bleeding on the brain and for some patients ‘could be doing more harm than good’.
He said: ‘People with AF who are at moderate to high risk of stroke should not be taking it.
‘Some people are on aspirin for other good reasons, for example after a heart attack or for peripheral vascular disease.
‘But anyone taking aspirin should check wih their GP why they are being prescribed it now there is a choice of anti-coagulants available.’
Rachel Seyler, of the Stroke Association charity, said: ‘Whilst many patients with AF don’t show any symptoms, key signs to look out for include your heart beating irregularly, shortness of breath and heart palpitations.’