At a recent health system physician leadership retreat, two cardiologists presented a fascinating update on the electrophysiology (EP) service line. Electrophysiologists use advanced heart mapping and ablation technologies to diagnose, pinpoint, and treat abnormal heart rhythms, and the field has made dramatic advances over the past decade. The success rate of interventions has risen, and procedures which used to take hours in a cath lab are now performed in a fraction of the time—with some patients even able to go home same-day.
This increased efficiency has expanded the EP program’s capacity, but the system still finds itself overwhelmed with demand. The system is located in a high-growth market, and demand is also fueled by shifting demographics, with more aging Baby Boomers seeking care. But a key driver of growth has been the spread of “smart watches” like the Apple Watch and Fitbit, which tout the ability to detect abnormal heart rhythms like atrial fibrillation. With “half of the community walking around with an EKG on their wrist”, the number of patients seeking evaluations for “a-fib” has skyrocketed: at this system, over 50 percent growth in patient volume, leading to 25 jump in procedures during the pandemic.
While the doctors were excited about growth, they also stressed the need to rethink care pathways to make sure that electrophysiologists’ time was prioritized for the patients who needed it most. The system should look to develop care pathways and technology that enable other physicians to readily triage and manage routine atrial fibrillation.
But smartwatch-driven self-diagnosis raises larger questions about how doctors and hospitals must adapt when consumer technology outpaces the science evaluating its effectiveness, and the health system’s ability to meet new demand. With private equity firms now focused on acquiring cardiology practices, this massive spike of demand, coupled with the ability to move more heart rhythm procedures outpatient, is seen by investors as a significant profit opportunity—making it even more critical for doctors, researchers, and hospitals to ensure that sound clinical guidelines are developed to drive high-quality, appropriate management.