Think F.A.S.T, act fast: Florey stroke researchers urge vigilance as COVID-19’s impact on stroke care revealed

Two major stroke research studies at the Florey Institute have reported concerning findings that people who experienced stroke during COVID-19 delayed attending hospital.

Early treatment is associated with reduced disability and fewer complications say the researchers who are urging people this National Stroke Week to remain vigilant in seeking medical care for suspected stroke and to think F.A.S.T (Face, Arms, Speech, Time).

The warning comes from researchers involved in the Australian Stroke Clinical Registry which has been providing a real-time snapshot of national stroke care for over a decade. Led out of the Florey Institute, the registry collects key data from hospitals around the country from first presentation in hospital through to patient outcomes obtained between 3 to 6 months. In 2020 when the world was hit by COVID-19, the registry began monitoring the impacts of the pandemic on stroke care.

Data collected from Australian hospitals in a survey between Jan – Jun 2020 painted a concerning picture of heavily affected acute stroke care and services. As case numbers of COVID-19 in Australia rose, around half of hospitals reported fewer people presenting to hospital with suspected stroke. Of the people who did present to hospital, data showed many had delay seeking medical care after onset of stroke, particularly for cases of mild stroke or where symptoms were fleeting.

Within hospital settings, the impact of the pandemic continued. Around one quarter of hospitals reported that stroke units had been moved or temporarily reduced in size and specialist staff deployed to other duties.

The Australian Stroke Clinical Registry continues to capture affected hospital services in parts of the nation  as the state deals with its latest wave of COVID-19 infections.

The Florey’s Professor Dominique Cadilhac, data custodian of the registry, urged people to be vigilant about seeking medical care for stroke.

“The biggest barrier to receiving life-saving stroke treatments is delaying going to hospital. We see though our research that early intervention achieves a significantly better outcome for people, including reducing the risk of disability or dying. If you or someone else experiences any of the signs of stroke, such as arm weakness, facial droop on one side or slurred speech, don’t let anything stop you from going to hospital. Act fast and call 000,” said Prof Cadilhac.

During the same period in 2020, a major international stroke clinical study led out of the Florey Institute observed COVID-19’s impact on stroke care on a global scale. The trial called AVERT DOSE engages people within 48 hours of stroke to establish the most effective and safe early mobility rehabilitation intervention.

Professor Julie Bernhardt AM leads the study, and says data provided by international hospitals showed reduced numbers of patients presenting to hospital with suspected stroke.

“We saw enormous disruption to stroke services across the board in 2020 and received on-the-ground hospital insight that people experiencing stroke were delaying coming to hospital to receive the appropriate care. Encouragingly, our research shows this is now improving compared to earlier in the pandemic,” said Professor Bernhardt.

“My message during national stroke week is clear – think F.A.S.T. Know the signs of stroke to look out for and call an ambulance straight away to seek treatment at hospital,” continued Prof Bernhardt.

For more information on how to recognise symptoms of stroke, visit the Stroke Foundation’s website or call Stroke Line on 1800 787 653.