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In defense of peer review

The generation of knowledge, through rigorous, established systematic methods has informed much of our progress in the past few centuries. Science guides all aspects of healthcare today including how we develop the new medications, therapeutic procedures, and non-pharmacological interventions that have improved the quality and duration of human life. Many of the crucial gates in the scientific journey- funding, ethical approval, and dissemination- are guarded by the process of peer review; a process that is increasing under attack in our current hyper-reactive, digital, media cycle.

Peer review is the critical appraisal of a scientific work by those who have requisite knowledge to evaluate one or more aspects of the work. It is a panel of experts in the related field who understand the importance and novelty of the questions under consideration and the rigor and trustworthiness of the methods proposed or employed to answer that question.

Peer review takes time. Time to find agreeable reviewers with the right expertise, time to review and think about the science, and time to determine how to weigh those critiques against the community’s need for information. From the early days of the novel coronavirus pandemic, this balance of time needed for peer review and unquenchable public thirst for rigorous information has been dominating the conversations at leading medical and scientific journals around the world. To better understand how these decisions are made and what we as clinicians, scientists, and health care consumers need to consider when reading and sharing emerging science, I spoke with Dr. Joseph Hill, the Editor in Chief of Circulation one of 12 AHA Journals.

Even though peer review is an established practice, it is important to start by questioning why we should even do it. Unquestionably, the value of thoughtful peer review is that it enhances the quality of the science. “We [the AHA journals)\] handle approximately 20,000 manuscripts a year and with extraordinarily rare exceptions, the paper always gets better with peer review”.

Having now published many of my own scientific manuscripts, I know the pain of peer review well. “They” missed that detail on line 176. “They” clearly lack the expertise to evaluate my work. “They” kept this manuscript for 8 months before sending their disposition! However, I also know that some of the best revisions to my papers have come from generous peer reviewers. Reviewers who volunteered to spend their time reading my papers and think deeply about my findings in the context of larger literature. While painful, the constant assessment and evaluation of our science is critical to improving the quality and impact of our work.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, up to 10 experts, including peer reviewers, statisticians, and editors, would review a manuscript for Circulation. But the need for up-to-date information about the epidemiology, pathophysiology, and treatment of COVID-19 challenged Circulation’s editorial team to move fast. While recognizing that it’s “hard to do good science in a war zone”, the quality of published science cannot be compromised in times of crisis. Dr. Hill continues, “We are walking a fine line between trying to get the information out as quickly as possible but we recognize that [in clinical science] we could make it worse and could do harm. So we have to maintain our high standards but function at a high velocity.”

High velocity seems an understatement. After an initial call for high-quality COVID-19 related papers, the editorial team has done over 300 fast track reviews, contributed to a curated coronavirus and cardiovascular disease collection, and conducted 17 interviews with experts working on the front line around the world. All in the past month. This work is exhausting but done with great energy by a team inspired to advance “cardiovascular science for the good of humanity, especially during these times of urgent challenge, anxiety, and forthright resolve.”

Peer review is the best process we have for evaluating science; but peer review is done by peers- busy, human, distractible peers- who will make mistakes. This is why many reputable journals require an editorial screen and at least two peer reviews before it can make a decision on a manuscript. Scientific volunteers do this work. Which brings us to what you, as an early career professional can do. Peer review relies on us—all of us—to sign up to review, accept the invitation to review, and spend the time carefully doing the review. You may wonder if you have the expertise to peer review for Circulation or another AHA Journal; you likely do and you should. Dr. Hill remarked that “some of the best reviews I’ve seen are from early-career scientists”.  If you are interested in helping to contribute to peer review and the sharing of good cardiovascular science, considering signing up to be a journal reviewer in your AHA Science Volunteer Form or emailing Dr. Hill your interest in reviewing for Circulation.

 

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”

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Another (Louder) Call to Improve the Care We Provide Heart Failure Patients

I am always taken aback when I recommend a switch to sacubitril/valsartan in a patient with heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) and the response is “my patient feels fine”. This is a common response and certainly not a good enough reason to not optimize guideline directed medical therapy (GDMT) in patients with HFrEF. Optimization of GDMT in HFrEF, known to improve morbidity and mortality (1,2), is dismal. The Change the Management of Patients with Heart Failure (CHAMP-HF) registry included patients in the United States with chronic HFrEF receiving at least one oral medication for management of HF and showed >25% of eligible patients are not prescribed angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor/angiotensin receptor blocker/angiotensin receptor neprilysin inhibitor, >33% are not prescribed a beta blocker, >50% are not prescribed a mineralocorticoid receptor antagonist. Remarkably, even among those receiving GDMT fewer than 25% are prescribed target doses and only 1% of eligible patients are simultaneously on target doses of all 3 classes of GDMT (3,4).

The mechanisms for suboptimal prescription of GDMT in HFrEF are complex and undertreatment is even more evident among women, minority patient populations, and patients from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, among others. Cost is certainly an issue, especially with more novel HF therapies and co-pay assistance programs are not always available to our most vulnerable patients. There are not enough HF cardiologists to take care of the continuously increasing population of HF patients and therefore, optimization of GDMT needs to be done by general cardiologists and primary care clinicians as well. We should also become creative and use telemedicine to optimize GDMT more efficiently. We do our patients a disservice by not optimizing GDMT that improves HF morbidity and mortality.

And just as optimization of GDMT is not ideal, neither is our evaluation of etiology of HF. Optimization of GDMT and determination of etiology of HF whose management may change disease trajectory should be undertaken in all patients with new-onset HF. This begins with a fundamental understanding of the various etiologies of HF, the laboratory and imaging testing needed, and the best treatment strategy for the underlying etiology discovered- if any (cue, “idiopathic” cardiomyopathy). O’Connor and colleagues’ observational cohort study from the Get With The Guidelines- Heart Failure (GWTG-HF) registry demonstrates the need to improve the testing we perform to exclude coronary artery disease (CAD) as the underlying etiology of new-onset HF.4

Why is this important? Well, of course for treatment, which involves deciding whether medical therapy (aspirin, statins) or revascularization (surgical or percutaneous) is a more optimal strategy. And most important to improve disease trajectory as continued ischemia will lead to worsening HF. O’Connor and colleagues found that the majority of  17,185 patients hospitalized for new-onset HF did not receive testing for CAD either during the hospitalization or in the 90 days before and after, despite data demonstrating that 60% (!!!) of HF patients have concomitant significant CAD.4 And consistent with disparities I mentioned earlier regarding the undertreatment of women with GDMT, men were more likely to be tested for CAD.

Diagnosing and treating CAD provides an opportunity to discuss risk factor modification with patients such as smoking cessation, diabetes control, exercise, healthy diets etc.… to further mitigate future risk. The importance of optimization of GDMT in patients with HFrEF cannot be understated and analogous to this, is the importance of examining the underlying etiology of HF in patients with new-onset HF with preserved, borderline, or reduced EF to improve disease trajectory. Furthermore, inequities in both aspects of the care of HF patients in terms of identification of etiology and optimization of GDMT, must be addressed on a national level. We have plenty of data illustrating suboptimal optimization of GDMT in those with established HFrEF and suboptimal testing for CAD in those with new-onset HF. The next steps are understanding the mechanisms and implementing strategies to improve care. The need for this is critical to reduce morbidity and mortality in all HF patients.

References

  1. Yancy CW, Jessup M, Bozkurt B et al. 2017 ACC/AHA/HFSA Focused Update of the 2013 ACCF/AHA Guideline for the Management of Heart Failure: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Clinical Practice Guidelines and the Heart Failure Society of America. Circulation 2017;137.
  2. Yancy CW, Januzzi JL, Allen LA et al. 2017 ACC Expert Consensus Decision Pathway for Optimization of Heart Failure Treatment: Answers to 10 Pivotal Issues About Heart Failure With Reduced Ejection Fraction. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2017.
  3. Greene SJ, Butler J, Albert NM et al. Contemporary Utilization and Dosing of Guideline-Directed Medical Therapy for Heart Failure with Reduced Ejection Fraction: From the CHAMP-HF Registry. Journal of the American College of Cardiology 2018.
  4. O’Connor, Kyle D., et al. “Testing for Coronary Artery Disease in Older Patients With New-Onset Heart Failure.” Circulation: Heart Failure, vol. 13, no. 4, 2020, doi:10.1161/circheartfailure.120.006963.

“The views, opinions and positions expressed within this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not represent those of the American Heart Association. The accuracy, completeness and validity of any statements made within this article are not guaranteed. We accept no liability for any errors, omissions or representations. The copyright of this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them. The Early Career Voice blog is not intended to provide medical advice or treatment. Only your healthcare provider can provide that. The American Heart Association recommends that you consult your healthcare provider regarding your personal health matters. If you think you are having a heart attack, stroke or another emergency, please call 911 immediately.”