Early Rhythm Control Improves Cardiovascular Outcomes in AFib Patients Regardless of Stroke Risk

Will Pass

September 07, 2022

Early rhythm control for patients with atrial fibrillation (AFib) improves cardiovascular outcomes regardless of an individual's stroke risk, a large retrospective study finds.

These findings broaden support for early rhythm control, suggesting that physicians should be presenting the option to all patients diagnosed with AFib in routine clinical practice, lead author Daehoon Kim, MD, of Yonsei University, Seoul, South Korea, and colleagues reported.

In 2020, the EAST-AFNET 4 trial showed that early rhythm control was better than rate control for reducing adverse cardiovascular outcomes, but the trial only included patients at risk of stroke with a CHA2DS2-VASc score of at least 2, leaving it unclear whether healthier patients might benefit from the same approach.

"Although the primary indication for rhythm control is to alleviate AF[ib]-related symptoms and improve quality of life, the current guidelines suggest younger age and no or few comorbid conditions as factors favoring rhythm control," the investigators wrote in Annals of Internal Medicine. "Thus, the effect of rhythm control on cardiovascular outcomes in this population requires elucidation."

Methods and Results

The present study aimed to address this knowledge gap by reviewing data from 54,216 patients with AFib who had rhythm control (ablation or medication) or rate control within one year of diagnosis. Among these patients, 69.3% would have qualified for the EAST-AFNET 4 trial based on higher stroke risk, while the remaining 30.7% of patients would not have been eligible because of lower stroke risk. Median age, consequently, was higher in the former group, at 70 years, versus 54 years in the latter group.

Evaluating the same primary composite outcome as the EAST-AFNET 4 trial (cardiovascular death, ischemic stroke, hospitalization for heart failure, or MI) showed that patients benefited from rhythm control over rate control regardless of risk group.

Those in the higher risk group had a 14% reduced risk of negative cardiovascular outcomes (weighted hazard ratio, 0.86; 95% confidence interval, 0.81-0.92), while those in the lower risk group had a 19% reduced risk of adverse cardiovascular outcomes (weighted HR, 0.81; 95% CI, 0.66-0.98). Safety profiles were similar across groups and management strategies.

Rhythm Control Well Supported From Statistical Perspective

"We think that physicians should pursue early rhythm control in all patients diagnosed with AF[ib]," principal author Boyoung Joung, MD, PhD, of Yonsei University said in an interview. "Like catheter ablation, we support the idea that early rhythm control can be more effective and safely performed in younger and less frail populations."

Xiaoxi Yao, PhD, MPH, associate professor of health services research at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., agreed that rhythm control is now well supported from a statistical perspective, but patients and physicians need to look beyond relative risk improvements, and remain pragmatic.

"There is a benefit, but the benefit is consistent in terms of hazard ratio, or relative risk," Yao said in an interview. "You still find a smaller absolute risk difference."

Patients in the United States – versus Korea where the investigators are based – also need to consider the out-of-pocket costs involved in rhythm control, Yao said, noting that unclear cost effectiveness may also prevent changes to American guidelines. Medication side effects and procedural risks should also be considered, she added, as well as time off from work needed for ablation.

Yao, who published a similar paper in June and previously evaluated the role of catheter ablation in routine practice, suggested that the youngest patients may have the most to gain from rhythm control. This is because even a small absolute benefit is magnified with time, she said.

"Since [younger patients] have another several decades to live ... then yes, there might be very significant long-term effects in terms of both symptom control and cardiovascular death and stroke," Yao said.

For optimal patient selection, however, more advanced tools are needed, which is why Yao and her colleagues are exploring new technologies to improve risk-benefit analysis.

"We are not only interested in [a patient's] baseline high or low risk, but also the extent of risk reduction [that rhythm control provides]," Yao said. "We are trying to see if there is an [artificial intelligence] or machine-learning approach that can help us provide each patient with a more accurate, individualized estimate to help them make their decision."

Until then, Yao encouraged physicians to engage in shared decision-making with patients, making sure to discuss both statistical and practical considerations.

The study was funded by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety of the Republic of Korea. The investigators and Yao reported no conflicts.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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