TV ads may improve stroke recognition

By Amy Norton

New York - TV ads that teach the warning signs of stroke may encourage more victims to get to the hospital quickly, researchers have found.

Between 2003 and 2005, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario ran two television ad campaigns on the warning signs of stroke. The ads, with the help of Canadian government funds, ran during prime-time and encouraged people to call 911 if they had any of five possible stroke symptoms: sudden weakness, trouble speaking, visual disturbances, dizziness or severe headache.

It appears some viewers heeded the advice, according to the study published in the journal Stroke, published by the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association.

After the ads were launched, researchers found that Ontario stroke centres saw an increase in ER visits for stroke symptoms. The trend then reversed in 2006, after the ads had been off the air for five months.

"The results in Ontario suggest that you don't need intensive television advertising to reach and educate people, but you do need to have the message communicated fairly continuously," lead study author Corinne Hodgson, a consulting epidemiologist for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, said.

The funding for a long-term campaign could come from a variety of sources, she said, but government money is probably key. It could well be worthwhile too, according to Hodgson, who noted that the Ontario campaign cost $1,8-million (about R13-million) per year, versus the more than $800-million (about R5,7-billion) that strokes cost the province each year.

In the US, Hodgson said, it's been estimated that strokes carry direct and indirect costs surpassing $62-billion (about R443-billion) per year.

Getting to the hospital at the first warning signs of stroke is central to preventing long-term disability.

For people suffering an ischemic stroke, the most common form of stroke, in which a clot obstructs blood flow to the brain, treatment with clot-dissolving medication can save lives and limit the severity of the stroke damage. But the drugs have to be given within three hours of the first symptoms.

If more stroke victims got to the hospital within that three-hour "window of opportunity", Hodgson said, it could improve survivors' quality of life and cut healthcare costs.

She and her colleagues based their findings on public surveys taken before, during and after the TV ad campaigns, along with data from a registry of all stroke admissions at 11 Ontario-area stroke centres.

Through the surveys, Hodgson's team found that public awareness of stroke warning signs grew after the ads were launched. This, in turn, appeared to spur small increases in the number of ER visits for stroke, as well as the number of people who arrived within 2.5 hours and within 5 hours of their symptom onset.

The ads had a particular effect on ER visits for transient ischemic attacks, or "mini-strokes" - transient and often subtle stroke symptoms that are often overlooked.

Hodgson called this effect particularly gratifying.

"Every TIA that shows up at a hospital," she said, "is an opportunity for secondary prevention that could prevent a completed stroke down the road."


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