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BACKGROUND: Patients with recent-onset atrial fibrillation commonly undergo immediate restoration of sinus rhythm by pharmacologic or electrical cardioversion. However, whether immediate restoration of sinus rhythm is necessary is not known, since atrial fibrillation often terminates spontaneously.
METHODS: In a multicenter, randomized, open-label, noninferiority trial, we randomly assigned patients with hemodynamically stable, recent-onset (<36 hours), symptomatic atrial fibrillation in the emergency department to be treated with a wait-and-see approach (delayed-cardioversion group) or early cardioversion. The wait-and-see approach involved initial treatment with rate-control medication only and delayed cardioversion if the atrial fibrillation did not resolve within 48 hours. The primary end point was the presence of sinus rhythm at 4 weeks. Noninferiority would be shown if the lower limit of the 95% confidence interval for the between-group difference in the primary end point in percentage points was more than -10.
RESULTS: The presence of sinus rhythm at 4 weeks occurred in 193 of 212 patients (91%) in the delayed-cardioversion group and in 202 of 215 (94%) in the early-cardioversion group (between-group difference, -2.9 percentage points; 95% confidence interval [CI], -8.2 to 2.2; P = 0.005 for noninferiority). In the delayed-cardioversion group, conversion to sinus rhythm within 48 hours occurred spontaneously in 150 of 218 patients (69%) and after delayed cardioversion in 61 patients (28%). In the early-cardioversion group, conversion to sinus rhythm occurred spontaneously before the initiation of cardioversion in 36 of 219 patients (16%) and after cardioversion in 171 patients (78%). Among the patients who completed remote monitoring during 4 weeks of follow-up, a recurrence of atrial fibrillation occurred in 49 of 164 patients (30%) in the delayed-cardioversion group and in 50 of 171 (29%) in the early-cardioversion group. Within 4 weeks after randomization, cardiovascular complications occurred in 10 patients and 8 patients, respectively.
CONCLUSIONS: In patients presenting to the emergency department with recent-onset, symptomatic atrial fibrillation, a wait-and-see approach was noninferior to early cardioversion in achieving a return to sinus rhythm at 4 weeks. (Funded by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development and others; RACE 7 ACWAS ClinicalTrials.gov number, NCT02248753.).
This is an important reminder that rate control and early follow-up for delayed cardioversion is safe and effective. Some systems will be able to arrange the early follow-up (within 12-24 hours), but many will not. Cardioversion early is similarly safe and effective and so is a great alternative when early follow-up cannot be arranged.
Regrettably this study is designed to demonstrate non-inferiority rather than therapeutic superiority. If the presumption is that there is no difference in outcomes from immediate vs delayed cardioversion, why require a second visit in order to achieve what can be dealt with in the emergency department on the first visit? Where I can envision clinical utility is in counselling patients with recurring paroxysmal atrial fibrillation. Rather than run into the ED immediately, this study suggests it would be safe to monitor (with rate control drugs as needed) for 48 hours. The American Heart Association 2019 guidelines would concur with that assessment.