OBJECTIVE--To assess the safety and value of an exercise electrocardiography service for the diagnosis of suspected ischaemic heart disease to which general practitioners have direct access. DESIGN--Direct access to a hospital exercise electrocardiography service was offered on a trial basis to 122 general practitioners in a defined urban area. Maximal exercise tests were performed according to the modified Bruce protocol and the results were dispatched promptly to the referring doctors who were responsible for the subsequent management of their patients. SETTING--All general practices in north and west Belfast (combined list size about 180,000) and the regional medical cardiology centre. PATIENTS--212 request forms were received in a two year period and 192 eligible patients attended for exercise testing. All patients were suspected to have pain due to myocardial ischaemia, were aged < or = 65, and had no contraindications to exercise testing. MAIN OUTCOME MEASURES--Proportion of general practitioners who used the service. Proportion of exercise tests that were positive. Referring doctors' assessment of the service. RESULTS--43% of general practitioners referred patients and 34 tests (18%) were positive. No complications occurred. The pretest likelihood of ischaemic heart disease, assessed by the referring doctor, was high in 48 (25%), moderate in 82 (43%), and low in 62 (32%). A high pretest likelihood of ischaemic heart disease predicted a positive test result with a sensitivity of 50% and specificity of 80%. General practitioners decided to refer 19 (10%) patients to a hospital cardiology department for further assessment, including 16 of the 34 who had a positive exercise test. In most cases the service was found to be helpful and 97% of patients would have been referred directly to a hospital cardiology clinic if it had not been available. CONCLUSIONS--Direct access exercise electrocardiography for patients with suspected ischaemic heart disease is safe, feasible, and helpful to general practitioners. This service seems to reduce the number of patients referred to cardiology outpatient clinics and to facilitate the management of these patients in the community.
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