Screening strategies for atrial fibrillation: A systematic review and cost-effectiveness analysis

Nicky J. Welton*, Alexandra McAleenan, Howard H.Z. Thom, Philippa Davies, Will Hollingworth, Julian P.T. Higgins, George Okoli, Jonathan A.C. Sterne, Gene Feder, Diane Eaton, Aroon Hingorani, Christopher Fawsitt, Trudie Lobban, Peter Bryden, Alison Richards, Reecha Sofat

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Background: Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common cardiac arrhythmia that increases the risk of thromboembolic events. Anticoagulation therapy to prevent AF-related stroke has been shown to be cost-effective. A national screening programme for AF may prevent AF-related events, but would involve a substantial investment of NHS resources. Objectives: To conduct a systematic review of the diagnostic test accuracy (DTA) of screening tests for AF, update a systematic review of comparative studies evaluating screening strategies for AF, develop an economic model to compare the cost-effectiveness of different screening strategies and review observational studies of AF screening to provide inputs to the model. Design: Systematic review, meta-analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis. Setting: Primary care. Participants: Adults. Intervention: Screening strategies, defined by screening test, age at initial and final screens, screening interval and format of screening {systematic opportunistic screening [individuals offered screening if they consult with their general practitioner (GP)] or systematic population screening (when all eligible individuals are invited to screening)}. Main outcome measures: Sensitivity, specificity and diagnostic odds ratios; the odds ratio of detecting new AF cases compared with no screening; and the mean incremental net benefit compared with no screening. Review methods: Two reviewers screened the search results, extracted data and assessed the risk of bias. A DTA meta-analysis was perfomed, and a decision tree and Markov model was used to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of the screening strategies. Results: Diagnostic test accuracy depended on the screening test and how it was interpreted. In general, the screening tests identified in our review had high sensitivity (> 0.9). Systematic population and systematic opportunistic screening strategies were found to be similarly effective, with an estimated 170 individuals needed to be screened to detect one additional AF case compared with no screening. Systematic opportunistic screening was more likely to be cost-effective than systematic population screening, as long as the uptake of opportunistic screening observed in randomised controlled trials translates to practice. Modified blood pressure monitors, photoplethysmography or nurse pulse palpation were more likely to be cost-effective than other screening tests. A screening strategy with an initial screening age of 65 years and repeated screens every 5 years until age 80 years was likely to be cost-effective, provided that compliance with treatment does not decline with increasing age. Conclusions: A national screening programme for AF is likely to represent a cost-effective use of resources. Systematic opportunistic screening is more likely to be cost-effective than systematic population screening. Nurse pulse palpation or modified blood pressure monitors would be appropriate screening tests, with confirmation by diagnostic 12-lead electrocardiography interpreted by a trained GP, with referral to a specialist in the case of an unclear diagnosis. Implementation strategies to operationalise uptake of systematic opportunistic screening in primary care should accompany any screening recommendations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)vii-235
Number of pages272
JournalHealth Technology Assessment
Issue number29
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2017


  • Atrial Fibrillation
  • Screening tests
  • Systematic screening
  • Population-based screening
  • Opportunistic screening
  • Economic evaluation
  • diagnostic test accuracy


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    Sterne, J. A. C.


    Project: Research, Parent

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