The European Society of Cardiology guidelines recommend (Class IA) single-time-point screening for atrial fibrillation (AF) using pulse palpation. The role of pulse palpation for AF detection has not been validated against electrocardiogram (ECG) recordings. We aimed to study the validity of AF screening using self-pulse palpation compared with an ECG recording conducted at the same time using a handheld ECG 3 times a day for 2 weeks.
In this cross-sectional screening study, patients 65 years of age and older attending 4 primary care centers (PCCs) outside Stockholm County were invited to take part in AF screening from July 2017 to December 2018. Patients were included irrespective of their reason for visiting the PCC. Handheld intermittent ECGs 3 times per day were offered to patients without AF for a period of 2 weeks, and patients were instructed in how to take their own pulse at the same time. A total of 1,010 patients (mean age 73 years, 61% female, with an average CHA2DS2-VASc score 2.9) participated in the study, and 27 (2.7%, 95% CI 1.8%-3.9%) new cases of AF were detected. Anticoagulants (ACs) could be initiated in 26 (96%, 95% CI 81%-100%) of these cases. A total of 53,782 simultaneous ECG recordings and pulse measurements were registered. AF was verified in 311 ECG recordings, of which the pulse was palpated as irregular in 77 recordings (25%, 95% CI 20%-30% sensitivity per measurement occasion). Of the 27 AF cases, 15 cases felt an irregular pulse on at least one occasion (56%, 95% CI 35%-75% sensitivity per individual). 187 individuals without AF felt an irregular pulse on at least one occasion. The specificity per measurement occasion and per individual was (98%, 95% CI 98%-98%) and (81%, 95% CI 78%-83%), respectively.
AF screening using self-pulse palpation 3 times daily for 2 weeks has lower sensitivity compared with simultaneous intermittent ECG. Thus, it may be better to screen for AF using intermittent ECG without stepwise screening using pulse palpation. A limitation of this model could be the reduced availability of handheld ECG recorders in primary care centers.