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Cardiac Rehab: Go, Go, Go

Cardiac Rehab Patients Have Better Survival Odds the More They Go
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WebMD Health News

Dec. 21, 2009 -- One of the most underused treatments for heart patients may also be one of the most effective, new research suggests.

The longer patients in the study participated in cardiac rehabilitation programs following heart-related hospitalizations, the better they fared.

The goal of cardiac rehabilitation is to slow or even reverse the progression of cardiovascular disease by educating patients about their disease and having them follow a medically supervised exercise program.

Sessions are typically held two or three times a week for several months after a heart-related hospital discharge, but only about 10% to 20% of patients who could benefit from the programs actually attend them, rehab specialist David Prince, MD, of Montefiore Medical Center tells WebMD.

"Many eligible patients are never referred for cardiac rehab and access is also an issue," Prince says.

Cardiac Rehab: More Is Better

Medicare recipients are entitled to 36 cardiac rehab sessions following hospitalization for heart attacks, bypass surgery, or many other heart-related events, yet most eligible patients end up attending far fewer sessions or none at all.

In an effort to determine if more is better when it comes to cardiac rehabilitation, researchers analyzed data from 5% of the nation's Medicare beneficiaries, including more than 30,000 heart patients who had participated in at least one cardiac rehabilitation session between 2000 and 2005.

About half the patients attended 24 sessions or fewer, biostatistician and study researcher Bradley G. Hammill, MS, tells WebMD.

Over roughly four years of follow-up, patients who attended all 36 reimbursed sessions were:

  • 47% less likely to die and 31% less likely to have a heart attack as patients who attended just one. 
  • 22% less likely to die and 23% less likely to have a heart attack than patients who attended 12 sessions. 
  • 14% less likely to die and a 12% less likely to have a heart attack than patients who attended 24 sessions.

The study will appear in the upcoming issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

"Our findings indicate that more cardiac rehabilitation is better in almost every situation," Hammill says. "It may be that people who finish 36 sessions are already healthier or more diligent about their health. Or it may be that the programs really do change behaviors and lower risk."

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