Our study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to investigate disparities in mortality outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people after admission for AMI in NSW, home to 30% of Australia’s Aboriginal population [14
]. The overall population size and the large number of Aboriginal people residing in NSW made it possible to use multilevel modelling to examine mortality outcomes, and it is the first study of AMI hospital outcomes nationally to account for clustering of patients within hospitals and to quantify the contribution of the admitting hospital to variation in mortality outcomes.
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people with AMI admitted to NSW hospitals were very different. Aboriginal patients were younger, more likely to live outside of major centres and in disadvantaged areas, and more likely to be admitted to lower volume hospitals outside major centres and those without on-site angiography facilities. After adjusting for age, sex and year, they were more likely to present with comorbid conditions, including acute and chronic renal failure, diabetes, congestive heart failure and pulmonary disease. Aboriginal people in Australia have a younger age distribution than non-Aboriginal people, so it is not unexpected that Aboriginal people admitted with AMI would be younger; however, higher age-specific incidence of AMI particularly among younger Aboriginal people was recently reported by a study in Western Australia (WA) [8
]. These findings and ours point to the importance of targeting the early onset of AMI among Aboriginal people and preventing or managing chronic diseases that may complicate treatment or lead to poorer long-term outcomes.
Our study found that once admitted to hospital, Aboriginal patients with AMI were less likely to die within 30
days than non-Aboriginal patients admitted to the same hospital (Table
, Model 1A). However, this finding was explained by substantial age differences: after adjusting for age, sex and year of admission, the differences in 30-day mortality was no longer significant (Model 2A). In contrast, after adjusting for age, sex and year, Aboriginal patients had 34% higher odds of dying within one year compared with non-Aboriginal patients admitted to the same hospital (Model 2B). However, this difference was no longer significant after adjusting for selected comorbidities (Model 3B), suggesting that part of the higher one-year mortality is due to the higher comorbidity burden among Aboriginal people admitted with AMI.
Our findings regarding short-term mortality differed from those of the WA study, which reported higher post-admission 28-day mortality ratios for Aboriginal compared with non-Aboriginal patients, ranging from 1.7 in 55–74
year-old males and females to 3.6 in 25–54
year old males [8
]. This discrepancy might relate to the different profile of the WA Aboriginal population (41% resident in remote or very remote areas, compared with 5% in NSW) [18
], and differences in study methodology (the WA study did not account for hospital of admission).
For longer-term mortality, our findings were similar to those of a Queensland study that reported an age-adjusted risk ratio of 1.8 (95% CI, 1.5-2.2) for 365-day mortality in Aboriginal patients with AMI after admission to Queensland public hospitals [10
]. We found that the significantly higher one-year mortality for Aboriginal patients did not persist after adjusting for comorbidities, but a recent study in WA found significantly higher rates of two-year cardiovascular death or recurrent AMI for Aboriginal compared with non-Aboriginal males and females after adjusting for demographic characteristics and comorbidities [27
]. These findings may suggest that the Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal disparity in mortality is greater in WA than in NSW. However, it is difficult to compare these findings directly because our study had a shorter length of follow-up for all-cause mortality, adjusted for hospital of admission, and did not examine mortality and recurrent AMI as a combined outcome. An increase in the Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal mortality ratio with increasing time after discharge has been shown in the Northern Territory for those admitted with acute coronary syndrome and surviving to discharge, with the disparities in mortality appearing at six months and Aboriginal patients being about three times more likely to die than non-Aboriginal patients after four years [28
]. However, caution must be taken when comparing Aboriginal peoples across Australia due to the differences in culture, geographic distribution, and access to and provision of services.
Our study showed that differences between hospitals impacted on mortality outcomes for both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal patients. After adjustment for patient factors, 2.72% of the remaining variation in 30-day mortality was attributable to differences between hospitals. This equates to a median odds ratio of 1.34, indicating a median difference of 34% in the odds of dying between randomly chosen pairs of hospitals. Almost 40% of this hospital-level contribution to variation in mortality was explained by hospital remoteness, hospital size and cardiac facilities. Patients admitted to smaller hospitals, and those in outer regional and remote areas, had a higher risk of short-term mortality, while patients admitted to a hospital with on-site angiography facilities had a reduced risk of dying. Recently, in the United States, condition-specific hospital volume was shown to be related to 30-day post-admission mortality after AMI, up to a threshold value, which was lower for hospitals with cardiac revascularisation services (432 vs 586 AMI admissions/year) [29
]. A Canadian study also found that admission to hospitals with on-site revascularisation facilities was related to improved long-term outcomes after AMI [30
]. However, our findings regarding the specific impact of hospital size, remoteness and on-site angiography facilities on outcomes should be interpreted with caution, as these variables may be correlated with other unmeasured aspects of hospital quality of care. We found no variation in the Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal mortality ratio (both short- and long-term) across hospitals.
There were limitations to our study due to using administrative data not collected for research purposes. Firstly, there was limited clinical information in the hospital data for risk adjustment; however, we used the conditions adjusted for in the Ontario AMI Mortality Risk Prediction Rule developed in Canada for use with AMI and administrative hospital data [21
] and supplemented this with additional conditions from the Charlson Comorbidity Index [22
]. Secondly, we were not able to remove all prevalent cases from our study because there were only a total of eight and a half years of linked data available. We did, however, test various clearance periods of up to four years and found that the Aboriginal to non-Aboriginal age-and sex-adjusted mortality ratios did not appear sensitive to the length of the clearance period. Thirdly, our sensitivity analysis using different algorithms for identifying Aboriginal people highlighted the potential for apparent disparities to be influenced by how Aboriginal status is defined. The strict definition requiring patients to be identified as Aboriginal at every hospital admission identified only 1% of admissions as Aboriginal which is half as many as the ‘most recent’ algorithm but generated higher relative odds of Aboriginal mortality. This may be because those people consistently identified as Aboriginal in the APDC have poorer health than Aboriginal people not consistently identified, but it may also be because the definition included a greater proportion with only a single admission, possibly skewing the sample towards people who died post-AMI. Lastly, we did not include deaths from AMI that occurred before the patient was admitted to hospital, either sudden death or death in ambulance or Emergency Department. It is possible that Aboriginal people would be overrepresented in these early deaths from AMI, due to higher comorbidity rates or living a greater distance from the nearest hospital, but this was outside the scope of our study examining outcomes after hospital admission.
Our study and others point to the importance of prevention and early intervention to target the early onset of AMI among Aboriginal Australians. These efforts must target risk factor prevalence among Aboriginal people, including higher rates of smoking and overweight and obesity, and the earlier onset of comorbidities like diabetes and renal failure [1
]. However, poor health behaviours may be a way of coping for people living under chronically stressful conditions, so psychosocial and emotional factors must also be taken into account [31
]. Importantly, our study has demonstrated that there are gains to be made—both for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people—by improving access to larger hospitals and hospitals with on-site angiography or by improving the cardiac care facilities at smaller hospitals.
The population density and geographic distances in Australia pose difficult policy questions about whether it is best to transfer patients as quickly as possible to major city hospitals or whether it is efficient to increase services in less densely population areas. Our results showed that the difference in outcomes for inner regional compared with major city hospitals was small and not significant, so boosting resources in regional centres may reduce the difference altogether, and reduce travel times to cardiac facilities for those living in regional and remote areas. One challenge is to ensure that any interventions are culturally appropriate for Aboriginal patients. While transfers can be very stressful for Aboriginal people living in remote areas, an action research study concluded that small interventions such as having dedicated liaison officers in the health system could improve cultural awareness of practitioners as well as communication and continuity of care and improve outcomes for Aboriginal patients [33
The higher mortality among Aboriginal patients in the first year after admission also highlights the importance of improved post-AMI care including appropriate medication and lifestyle interventions. This period after discharge warrants further investigation to disentangle the impacts on mortality of comorbidity burden and differences in access to, or adherence with, follow-up care and secondary prevention.