Not enough priority is given to stroke victims resulting in hundreds of people dying unnecessarily in England each year and many more left with serious disabilities, MPs have said.
A report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee found that around 550 lives could be saved annually if patients spent more time on specialist hospital stroke units.
It added that more of the 110,000 people who suffered a stroke each year in England could be saved if the NHS treated the condition as a medical emergency in the same way as a suspected heart attack.
The report found that stroke has not been given the same priority or allocated the same resources as cancer or heart disease even though it is England’s third biggest killer.
Around 26,400 people stroke victims die each year and there are around 300,000 people in England living with severe or moderate disabilities as a result of strokes.
But unlike the number of those dying from a heart attack declined between 1992 and 2002, the chances of a stroke victim dying remained constant over the same period.
Some of the problems stem from the fact that stroke has been viewed as an inevitable risk of growing old but the report said there was ‘absolutely no justification’ for this approach, as a quarter of stroke patients are under 65.
Committee chairman Edward Leigh said: ‘Each year hundreds of stroke patients needlessly die or suffer more serious disablement than they should because the Department of Health and the NHS have failed to give stroke services the priority they warrant.
‘Until recently, stroke has been treated as going with the territory of growing old and has certainly not been given the same level of priority and resources as coronary heart disease and cancer. Much more can be done to prevent stroke and to save lives and reduce disability.’
The report called for an information campaign to make sure that members of the public, hospital staff and GPs recognise stroke as an emergency requiring a 999 response.
It also recommended an increase in the numbers of specialist staff from one stroke consultant for every 640 patients to the 360 patients per consultant seen in cardiac care.
Stroke victims should be given rapid brain scans, followed by care on specialist units. Currently, only around two-thirds of victims are treated in specialist stroke units, and they take an average of two days to arrive there, compared to just three to five hours in Sweden.
The Stroke Association’s Director of Communications, Joe Korner, said today’s report exposed the ‘sorry state’ of NHS stroke services.
‘For far too long stroke has been a low priority for the NHS resulting in needless deaths and disability for many thousands of people,’ he said.
‘We know that treating stroke as a medical emergency makes a dramatic difference. People with a suspected stroke must have a brain scan and diagnosis within three hours. And access to properly staffed stroke units can halve mortality rates.
‘Yet all of this relies on the public knowing what a stroke is and how to diagnose it. At the moment just over half of the population know what a stroke is and too few know what the symptoms are. If the Department of Health wants to tackle stroke then it must urgently invest in a public awareness campaign.’
The Department of Health welcomed the report, pointing out that a team of specialists is already developing a new national stroke strategy to improve treatment of the condition.