NATIONAL HARBOR, MD. – A pilot program of daily arrhythmia self-vigilance has allowed selected patients with no atrial fibrillation following a catheter ablation procedure to safely come off a regimen of daily oral anticoagulation despite having residual risk factors for ischemic stroke.
This program, which started several years ago at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has now managed 190 patients and followed them for a median of just over 3 years, and during 576 patient-years of follow-up, just a single patient had an ischemic cerebrovascular event that occurred with no atrial fibrillation (AFib) recurrence and appeared to be caused by an atherosclerotic embolism, Francis E. Marchlinski, MD, said at the annual International AF Symposium.
Although this strategy has not yet been tested in a prospective, randomized trial, this anecdotal, single-center experience suggests that the approach is “safe and effective” for selected patients who are eager to come off of their anticoagulation regimen when they remain arrhythmia free following catheter ablation of their AFib, said Dr. Marchlinski, professor of medicine and director of electrophysiology at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his associates developed this strategy as a way to more safely allow these patients to stop taking a daily oral anticoagulant because he found that many patients were stopping on their own, with no safety strategy in place.
“Patients tell me they don’t want to be on an oral anticoagulant because a parent had a hemorrhagic stroke, and they say they’re willing to accept the risk” of having an ischemic stroke by coming off anticoagulation. “This is a way for them to do it safely,” Dr. Marchlinski said in an interview. He stressed that he only allows his patients to go this route if they understand the risk and accept their shared responsibility for vigilant, twice-daily pulse monitoring to detect resumption of an irregular heart beat.
Since 2011, Dr. Marchlinski’s program ablated 1,216 patients with AFib who then remained arrhythmia free during 3 weeks of continuous ECG monitoring following their procedure. Among these patients, 443 had a CHA2DS2-VAScscore of either 0 (men) or 1 (women) that indicated no ongoing need for oral anticoagulation according to current guidelines. Of the remaining 773 patients with a CHA2DS2-VASc score of at least 1 in men and 2 in women, the clinicians determined 583 to be ineligible for the program because of their unwillingness to accept the risk, unwillingness to comply with daily pulse checks, a history of asymptomatic AFib, a CHA2DS2-VASc score greater than 4, or a resting pulse above 90 beats per minute, leaving 190 patients eligible to participate. Among these patients, 105 (55%) had a CHA2DS2-VASc score of 2-4, which should prompt anticoagulation according to current guidelines.Participating patients committed to check their resting pulse by palpation at least twice daily and to contacting the program immediately if their resting rate spiked by more than 20 beats per minutes or in another way seemed irregular. Patients were also instructed to restart their oral anticoagulation immediately if they experienced AFib symptoms that persisted for more than 5 minutes. Many patients in the program also use a wearable device (usually a watch) to monitor their resting pulse and to generate a 30-second ECG recording that they can send as an electronic file to the University of Pennsylvania staff. “We embrace wearables,” Dr. Marchlinski said. Those without a wearable can undergo transtelephonic EEG monitoring to document a suspected arrhythmia recurrence, and all patients undergo annual monitoring by continuous ECG for at least 2 weeks.During follow-up, in addition to the 1 patient free from recurrent AFib who had an atherosclerotic embolism, 34 patients resumed anticoagulant treatment because of AFib recurrence; 12 withdrew from the program because of noncompliance or preference, or because an exclusion appeared; 29 resumed oral anticoagulation transiently but then discontinued the drug a second time when their AFib recurrence resolved; and 114 patients (60% of the starting cohort of 190) remained completely off anticoagulation during a median of 37 months. These data updated a published report from Dr. Marchlinski and his associates on their first 99 patients followed for a median of 30 months (J Cardiovasc Electrophysiol. 2019 May;30:631-8).
This experience underscored the need for ongoing rhythm monitoring even in the absence of AFib symptoms, as six patients developed asymptomatic AFib detected by monitoring, including one patient whose recurrence occurred 30 months after the ablation procedure.
Dr. Marchlinski stressed the stringent selection process he applies to limit this approach to patients who are willing to faithfully monitor their pulse and symptoms daily, and who accept the risk that this approach may pose and their responsibility to stay in contact with the clinical team. The program calls patients at the 6-month mark between annual monitoring to remind them of their need for daily attention.
“Being off anticoagulants is very important to these patients,” he explained, and he highlighted the added workload this strategy places on his staff. “I think this has legs” for adoption by other cardiac arrhythmia programs, “but it depends on the time the staff is willing to spend” monitoring and following these patients, some of whom regularly send in ECG traces from their wearable devices for assessment. “It takes a village” to make this program work, he said.
Dr. Marchlinski has been a consultant to or has received honoraria from Abbott EP/St. Jude, Biosense Webster, Biotronik, Boston Scientific, and Medtronic.