Skip to main content

Okea/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Blood pressure monitoring machines purchased for home use or found in pharmacies are an increasingly popular way for people to monitor their levels on an ongoing basis. But a new study shows the machines may also be responsible for a spike in the number of people making unnecessary trips to the emergency room.

Dr. Clare Atzema, an emergency physician at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, led the study after she noticed more patients coming to the hospital because they had a high reading from a blood-pressure monitoring machine.

In the study, published Wednesday in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine, she and her colleagues looked at Ontario health data from people who came to the emergency department and received a high blood pressure diagnosis from 2002 to 2012. They found that emergency room visits among those patients jumped 64 per cent during the study period, going from fewer than 15,800 visits a year to nearly 26,000 in 2012.

But over the course of the study period, only about 8 per cent of those individuals who came to the emergency room were subsequently admitted. Less than 1 per cent died within 90 days of the emergency department visit. After two years, only 4 per cent had died. While that is, of course, good news, it shows there are far too many people seeking emergency medical treatment for high readings, Atzema said.

"People don't know what to do with the numbers," said Atzema, who is also a scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences. "People don't understand how variable blood pressure can be."

Unless a person is also experiencing chest pain, nausea, shortness of breath or a severe headache, they are better off scheduling an appointment to see their family doctor than to drive to the hospital because of a high reading, Atzema said.

Over time, high blood pressure can damage the heart and other organs and increases the risk of stroke, heart attack and many other serious health problems. But it has to be managed on a long-term basis. That doesn't mean patients should ignore a high reading, but instead enlist the help of a health professional to gradually lower the levels to a safe zone.

Although it's difficult to determine the extent to which home blood-pressure monitors are driving the increase in emergency visits, Atzema said she and her colleagues all see an upward trend. Atzema was involved in a study published last year that found nearly half of those who came to the emergency department over high blood pressure concerns did so after getting a high reading at home.

Guidelines from the Canadian Hypertension Education Program recommend that people with high blood pressure use home monitoring machines to track their levels over time. The American Heart Association also endorses home monitoring, in conjunction with visits to a health professional.

Pharmacies typically have blood-pressure machines available free for use, although Hypertension Canada also has a list of blood-pressure monitors that it endorses and some of the models cost around $100.

But more education and awareness of what to do with those blood-pressure readings may be needed, Atzema said.

"[The monitors] are wonderful for long-term care," she said. "It would be nice if the guidelines had a little more to offer around patient support."