Atrial fibrillation (AF), the most common form of dysrhythmia, steadily increases in prevalence with age. If left untreated, AF significantly increases the risk of stroke, heart failure, and death. Despite the increasing prevalence, there are significant research gaps in the prediagnosis symptom experiences of patients with AF.
The purpose of this qualitative descriptive study was to explore the prediagnosis symptom experience of patients with AF.
Participants 19 years or older with AF diagnosed in the previous year were recruited (n = 26) from outpatient cardiac rehabilitation and AF clinics. Semistructured interviews, broadly guided by the Symptom Experience Model, explored perceptions, evaluations, and responses to AF symptoms. Thematic analysis used a 2-step approach, deductively coding for participants' symptom perceptions, evaluations, and responses and inductively coding within these broader Symptom Experience Model concepts.
Perception involved awareness of bodily sensations, ranging from imperceptible noticing to commanding attention, heightened by rest and activity. In evaluation, participants used self-derived theories to explain their symptoms, gathered evidence to support/refute their theories, and formulated alternative theories as symptoms changed over time. Responses consisted of nontreatment, self-treatment, and health seeking; most participants needed repeated healthcare visits before diagnosis.
The current study identified challenges participants experienced in developing awareness of their AF symptoms, the complex cognitive processes associated with evaluation, and barriers that made it difficult to respond to AF symptoms in a timely manner. Understanding the prediagnosis symptom experience from the patient's perspective is essential for the enhancement of current AF screening practices.