Chronic Heart Failure - Diagnosis and Management

BC Guidelines Logo

Effective Date: October 28, 2015

Recommendations and Topics


This guideline provides strategies for the improved diagnosis and management of adults aged ≥ 19 years with chronic heart failure (HF) in the primary care setting.

Key Recommendations

  • B-Type natriuretic peptide (BNP) OR N-terminal prohormone of BNP (NT-proBNP) is the biochemical test of choice for ruling-in or ruling-out the diagnosis of HF and should be considered as part of the initial evaluation of patients with dyspnea suspected of having HF. [Amended, 2015]
  • BNP (or NT-proBNP) testing should not be used routinely for monitoring disease severity. [New, 2015]
  • Educate the patient and family about the importance of self-monitoring to identify early decompensation at a stage where intervention may help to avoid hospitalization. Consider referral to a Heart Function Clinic or a multi-disciplinary chronic disease management clinic. [Amended, 2015]
  • Identify who would benefit from a palliative care assessment by using the iPall – Heart Failure: Palliative Care Assessment Tool. Initiate advance care planning discussions early in the disease course. [Amended, 2015]
  • The goals of pharmacologic management for HF patients with preserved ejection fraction (HF-pEF) are to control heart rate, blood pressure and volume status, as no medications have shown a mortality benefit in this patient group. [New, 2015]
  • For patients with reduced ejection fraction (HF-rEF) there is robust mortality data to support the use of pharmacological and device therapies. These treatments have also been shown to improve symptom status, quality of life and decrease the risk of HF-related hospitalization. [New, 2015]


HF is a clinical syndrome defined by signs and symptoms suggestive of impaired cardiac output, volume overload or both. The measurement of left ventricular ejection fraction (LVEF) assists in the classification of a HF patient as having HF-pEF (EF  ≥ 40%) or HF-rEF (EF < 40%). This distinction provides prognostic information and guides the clinician in identifying who will benefit from evidence-based treatment strategies. Though there is variability in reporting EF based on modality, the general cut off for treatment of HF-rEF is < 40%; however, this needs to be customized based on the individual patient.


The diagnosis of HF is difficult because many of the signs and symptoms are neither sensitive nor specific. This is especially true when HF is in the early stages, when evaluating women, obese patients, the elderly or those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic kidney disease (CKD).

To help identify those patients at-risk for HF, there is a spectrum of co-morbidities that may predict the future development of HF. These include: hypertension, diabetes, and prior myocardial infarction. A review of new HF cases in BC suggests that 80% of individuals were previously diagnosed with hypertension, 40% with diabetes, and 45% with ischemic heart disease. On average, these co-morbidities were apparent 8, 6 and 4 years before their diagnosis of HF, respectively.2

To confirm the diagnosis of HF, conduct a thorough medical history, physical examination and initial investigations (see Table 3). Use this information to identify potential causes for a patient’s HF, any relevant co-morbid conditions or precipitating factors, and to serve as a baseline when assessing the impact of HF therapies.

Medical History & Physical Examination

Table 1. Risk factors, comorbidities, symptoms and signs for heart failure

Chronic Heart Failure Table 1

Table 2. New York Heart Association (NYHA) functional classifications3

Chronic Heart Failure Table 2


Table 3. Initial investigations to support the diagnosis and guide heart failure management

Chronic Heart Failure Table 3

BNP Testing

BNP and NT-proBNP have similar clinical utility. Either biomarker can be used for diagnostic purposes, however results from the two assays are not comparable. Both tests have a high-sensitivity for the detection of HF. A low result (i.e., <100 for BNP or <300 for NT-proBNP) for either test is associated with a high negative predictive value for the clinical syndrome of HF, while elevated values (i.e., > 400 for BNP or > 450 – 1800, depending on age, for NT-proBNP) have a high positive predictive value for the diagnosis of HF. BNP (or NT-proBNP) testing for confirmation of a HF diagnosis is recommended if there is diagnostic uncertainty and/or there is an anticipated delay in obtaining a timely echo. At present, BNP (or NT-proBNP) testing should not be used routinely for monitoring HF disease severity. Refer to Appendix A: Natriuretic Peptide Testing for Heart Failure in the Primary Care Setting for further information.

LVEF Imaging

The Canadian standard is to have LVEF measured within 30 days of a HF diagnosis; however due to waitlists and regional variations in access, echo assessment of LVEF may not be feasible in all parts of BC. Within this context, LVEF measurement may also be obtained by:

  • Thallium and Sestamibi (MIBI) scan – especially in those patients where ischemia may be the underlying etiology of the patient’s HF; and/or
  • Multi Gated Acquisition Scan (MUGA) or radionuclide angiography – especially for patients with COPD or obesity which may affect echo image quality; or in those who require precise assessment of LVEF for consideration of advanced HF therapies (e.g., defibrillator or cardiac resynchronization therapy).        


Management within the Primary Care Setting

Figure 1. Heart failure zones reference guide

1.  Lifestyle Management and Self-Monitoring

HF care depends on the patient’s understanding of, and participation in, optimal care. Educate the patient and their care givers about the HF Zones (see Figure 1) and lifestyle management (see Table 4). Patient educational materials are available from Cardiac Services BC (website: For further assistance, refer the patient to a Heart Function Clinic or a multi-disciplinary chronic disease management clinic.

Table 4. Canadian-consensus based lifestyle and self-monitoring recommendations

Chronic Heart Failure Table 4

2.  Pharmacologic Management

For all patients, review medications for intended and unintended effects (e.g., inappropriate polypharmacy, potential drug-drug interactions, and inadvertent aggravation of comorbid conditions) and consider changing or discontinuing medications as needed. Avoid the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, COX-2 inhibitors, not including low dose ASA), as their use may worsen the symptoms of HF. For more information on medications including dosage amounts and side effects, refer to Appendix B: Commonly used Drugs in Heart Failure Care.

In HF patients, EC-ASA (81 mg) and statins may be considered if there is a clear indication for secondary prevention of cardiovascular events.

2a. Heart Failure with Preserved Ejection Fraction (EF ≥ 40%)

For patients with HF-pEF the goals of pharmacologic management are to optimize risk factors for disease progression/decompensation, and control signs/symptoms of HF (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, volume status). There are currently no therapies with demonstrated mortality benefit in patients with HF-pEF.

Medications to relieve symptoms:

Angiotensin Converting Enzyme Inhibitors (ACE-I) or Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers (ARB; Special Authority required)

  • May be used in HF-pEF patients who have other indications for their use (e.g., hypertension and nephropathy).  
  • Serum creatinine may increase by up to 30% in many HF patients with initiation of an ACE-I or ARB. There is no concern if the increase stabilizes at ≤ 30%, though consider closer long-term monitoring.

Beta-blockers or Calcium Channel Blockers (CCB)

  • May be used to either control heart rate or to lower blood pressure.
  • No specific beta-blocker is indicated for patients with HF-pEF.
  • Use a non-dihydropyridine CCB (e.g., diltiazem or verapamil) if needed to control heart rate.
  • In patients with HF-pEF complicated by atrial fibrillation, who remain tachycardic despite beta-blocker therapy or CCB alone, consider the addition of digoxin.

Mineralocorticoid Receptor Antagonists (MRA; also known as aldosterone receptor antagonists)

  • Spironolactone may be considered in patients with HF-pEF, increased BNP levels, serum potassium < 5.0 mmol.L, and eGFR ≥ 30 mL/min.
  • Monitor serum potassium and creatinine once spironolactone has been started or change of dose at week 1, week 4 and month 4, or whenever clinically indicated.


  • Furosemide may be used to control symptoms of volume overload. When congestion has cleared, use the lowest dose needed to maintain euvolemia.
  • Use with caution as excessive diuresis may cause postural hypotension and compromise renal function.

2b. Heart Failure with Reduced Ejection Fraction (EF < 40%)

For patients with HF-rEF, the goals of therapy are to reduce mortality/morbidity, control signs/symptoms (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, volume status), optimize cardiac geometry and function, and prevent HF-related hospital admissions.

Table 5. Mortality reductions based on medication for heart failure-reduced ejection fraction

For a therapeutic algorithm based on symptom and functional status, refer to Associated Documents: Therapeutic Approach to Patients with Heart Failure and Reduce Ejection Fraction from the Canadian Cardiovascular Society (CCS).

Medications to improve mortality/morbidity:

ACE-I or ARBs (Special Authority required)

  • Consider initiating an ACE-I (or ARB, if ACE-I intolerant) while diuretic therapy is being optimized (e.g., while patient is wet). Start with low doses and titrate towards the target dose or the maximum dosage tolerated at one to two-week intervals.
  • ARBs have not been shown to be superior to ACE-I.
  • Serum creatinine may increase by up to 30% in many HF patients with initiation of an ACE-I or ARB. There is no concern if the increase stabilizes at ≤ 30%, though consider closer long-term monitoring of renal function.  
  • Low blood pressure is a common side effect when using an ACE-I or ARB. Consider reducing diuretic dose only if the patient experiences symptomatic hypotension AND is clinically euvolemic. Consider staggering vasoactive medications if patient is still symptomatic.  


  • Initiate a beta-blocker once the patient is established on an ACE-I or ARB and patient is clinically euvolemic. Start with low doses and titrate towards the target dose or the maximum dosage tolerated at one to two-week intervals.  
  • Inform the patient that they may experience an increase in fatigue for a couple of weeks before improvement is noted.
  • Carvedilol (Special Authority required) and bisoprolol are the indicated and available beta-blockers for patients with HF-rEF, as both have been shown reduce mortality and are available in Canada. Metoprolol tartrate is available in Canada, but has not been shown to reduce mortality in patients with HF.
  • If patient is currently on another beta-blocker (including metoprolol), consider a therapeutic switch to carvedilol or bisoprolol.
  • Reassess the dose of beta-blockers in patients with symptomatic hypotension after other potential causes of hypotension have been addressed, those with symptomatic bradycardias or resting heart rate of less than 50, and those that may have a clinical history of severe reactive airway disease.
  • Patients with COPD tend to tolerate beta-blockers well. Beta-blockers have been shown to reduce mortality in meta-analyses of HF patients with COPD.  

Mineralocorticoid Receptor Antagonists (MRAs; also known as aldosterone receptor antagonists)

  • An MRA is recommended for those with NYHA class II – IV symptoms and an EF ≤ 35%, and with serum potassium < 5.0 mmol/L and eGFR ≥ 30 mL/min.
    • Use eplerenone (not covered by PharmaCare) for those patients with
      1. NYHA class II-III symptoms and LVEF ≤ 30%
      2. NYHA class II-III symptoms, LVEF 30-35% and QRS duration > 130 ms on ECG
    • Use spironolactone for those patients with NYHA class III – IV symptoms.
  • Unsupervised use of a MRA may cause life-threatening hyperkalemia or renal insufficiency. Monitor vital signs, serum creatinine and potassium at 3 and 7 days after initiating or titrating the dose and repeat as needed until potassium levels and renal function are stable. Monitoring should then be done monthly for 3 months and every 3 months thereafter.  More frequent monitoring may be considered during any dehydrating illness or conditions in which renal function can worsen.

Isosorbide dinitrate and Hydralazine

  • Consider the combination of isosorbide dinitrate and hydralazine as an alternative to an ACE-I or ARB, for black patients or for non-black patients unable to tolerate an ACE-I or ARB (e.g., patient with renal failure).

Medications to relieve symptoms:


  • Use a loop diuretic (e.g., furosemide) to relieve congestive symptoms. When congestion is cleared, use the lowest dose of diuretic needed to maintain euvolemia.
  • A second diuretic (e.g., metolazone) may be cautiously introduced for patients with persistent volume overload despite optimal medical therapy and maximal doses of loop diuretic as long as it is possible to closely monitor morning weight, renal function, and serum potassium.
  • Higher doses of diuretics may be needed in patients with significant renal dysfunction, those with gross volume overload, or poor nutritional status. 
  • Patients on long term diuretic therapy may develop tolerance to diuretics necessitating higher doses in the face of fluid overload or disease decompensation.


  • In the absence of any mortality benefit, digoxin is no longer considered a first-line therapy for HF patients even though it has been shown to relieve symptoms and reduce hospitalizations.
  • It may be used in patients with sinus rhythm who continue to have moderate to severe HF symptoms despite optimally tolerated mortality driven therapy.
  • It may be used in patients with atrial fibrillation who have poor control of ventricular rate despite optimal beta-blocker therapy or where beta-blockers are contraindicated.
  • Pay close attention to the risk of digoxin toxicity. Monitor digoxin, potassium, and creatinine levels when changing digoxin or diuretic dosages, when adding or discontinuing drugs with potential interactions, or during a dehydrating illness.
  • Use of digoxin in patients with CKD should be approached with caution unless renal function is stable and patient is symptomatically benefited.

Emerging Therapies:

Angiotensin Receptor-Neprilysin Inhibitors (ARNI)  

ARNI is a new class of medications for the treatment of HF-rEF, which both blocks angiotensin receptors and inhibits the enzyme neprilysin resulting in higher endogenous levels of vasoactive peptides (e.g., natriuretic peptides, bradykinin, and adrenomedulin). Entresto is a combination product containing sacubitril, a neprilysin inhibitor, and valsartan. In a recent landmark clinical trial4 patients treated with Entresto had a lower risk of cardiovascular death and first hospitalization compared to patients using enalapril. Entresto has recently been approved for the treatment of HF by Health Canada but at this time the cost and timelines for availability are unknown.


Ivabradine is a selective sinus node inhibitor recently approved by the European Medicines Agency and the US Food and Drug Administration for HF-rEF patients with persistent functional limitations and who are in sinus rhythm with a resting heart rate of at least 75 beats per minute despite optimally tolerated beta-blocker therapy. In the SHIFT study, ivabradine significantly reduced the risk of the primary endpoint, a composite of cardiovascular death or hospital admission for worsening heart failure, by 18% compared to placebo.5 The effects were mainly driven by decreased hospital admissions for worsening heart failure compared to placebo. At this time, ivabradine has not been approved by Health Canada and the cost is unknown.

2c. Indications for Referrals

To a Cardiologist/Internist for:

  • Further direction on how to medically manage the patient when needed
  • Persistent symptoms or signs of HF despite attempts at optimizing medical therapy
  • Management of HF where valvular disease or coronary disease is a significant contributing factor

To a Heart Function Clinic for:

  • Management after a recent admission or repeated admissions to hospital
  • Assessment of asymptomatic left ventricular dysfunction
  • Assistance with multidisciplinary HF care including education on lifestyle management skills
  • Consideration for advanced therapies including PCI, surgery and implantable devices
  • HF with persistent symptoms
  • New diagnosis of HF

3.  Device Management

Decisions about device management (e.g., implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT)) tend to be complex and require input from a cardiologist/internist/ cardiac electrophysiologist/Heart Function Clinic. Appropriate ICD utilization is associated with improved mortality, but it does not improve the patient’s quality of life. By contrast, CRT is associated with improved mortality and quality of life (improved symptom status and functional capacity).

Table 6. Mortality reductions based on device

ICD may be considered in patients with one of the following:

  • History of hemodynamically significant sustained ventricular arrhythmia;
  • Ischemic cardiomyopathy and LVEF ≤ 35% (measured at least 1 month after acute myocardial infarction, or 3 months post coronary artery revascularization); or
  • Non-ischemic cardiomyopathy and LVEF ≤ 35% (measured at least 9 months after optimal medical therapy).   

ICD should not be considered in patients with active NYHA Class IV symptoms.

CRT may be considered in patients with NYHA class II – IV symptoms despite maximally tolerated HF therapies, a QRS duration ≥ 130 ms, and LVEF ≤ 35%.

4. Practical Considerations for Other Clinical Conditions

A number of clinical conditions significantly influence the management of HF. Recommendations for other clinical conditions may be found using the CCS Heart Failure Compendium

5. Palliative and End of Life Care

Identify who would benefit from a palliative care assessment by using the iPall – Heart Failure: Palliative Care Assessment Tool (available at Cardiac Services BC), which includes:

  1. Ask yourself – would you be surprised if this patient died in the next 6 – 12 months?
  2. Look for ≥ 1 general clinical indicator, which are poor/deteriorating status; multiple hospitalizations in the past 6 months; more care is needed; multiple co-morbidities causing symptoms and/or functional status decline.
  3. Look closer for ≥ 2 disease related indicators, which are: NYHA class III – IV functional status; persistent symptoms despite maximal medical therapy; renal impairment; cardiac cachexia; markers of chronic inflammation/cachexia; ≥ 2 acute episodes needing intravenous (furosemide and/or inotropes) therapy in the last 6 months.

Once the decision to initiate end of life care is made, the goal of therapy is to manage pain, dyspnea, other symptoms, and quality of life. This may include providing support for the patient’s family and caregivers. Consider referral to palliative care/hospice teams, if available. 



  1. Provincial Diagnostic Imaging Working Group. Summary report for the provincial heart failure steering committee. December 2013.
  2. Ministry of Health. Descriptive statistical analysis for logistic modelling in heart failure. 2012.
  3. The Criteria Committee of the New York Heart Association. (1994). Nomenclature and Criteria for Diagnosis of Diseases of the Heart and Great Vessels. (9th ed.). Boston: Little, Brown & Co. pp. 253–256.
  4. McMurray JJ, Packer M, Desai AS, et al. Angiotensin-neprilysin inhibition versus enalapril in heart failure. N Engl J Med 2014;371:993-1004.
  5. Swedberg K, Komajda M, Böhm M, Borer JS, Ford I, Dubost-Brama A, et al. Ivabradine and outcomes in chronic heart failure (SHIFT): a randomised placebo-controlled study. Lancet. 2010 Sep 11;376(9744):875–85.


  • Cardiac Services BC, - generates and shares accurate, current, and relevant HF information for health care professionals and patients in BC.
  • RACE - Rapid Access to Consultative Expertise program - a telephone advice line from a selection of specialty services for general practitioners.  
  • BC Ministry of Health – Advance Care Planning. Each health authority also has an Advance Care Planning website.


Associated Documents

The following documents accompany this guideline:

This guideline is based on scientific evidence current as of the Effective Date.

This guideline was developed by the Guidelines and Protocols Advisory Committee, approved by the British Columbia Medical Association, and adopted by the Medical Services Commission.

The principles of the Guidelines and Protocols Advisory Committee are to:

  • Encourage appropriate responses to common medical situations
  • Recommend actions that are sufficient and efficient, neither excessive nor deficient
  • Permit exceptions when justified by clinical circumstances.

Contact Information

Guidelines and Protocols Advisory Committee
Victoria BC V8W 9P1


Web site:



The Clinical Practice Guidelines (the “Guidelines”) have been developed by the Guidelines and Protocols Advisory Committee on behalf of the Medical Services Commission. The Guidelines are intended to give an understanding of a clinical problem, and outline one or more preferred approaches to the investigation and management of the problem. The Guidelines are not intended as a substitute for the advice or professional judgment of a health care professional, nor are they intended to be the only approach to the management of clinical problem. We cannot respond to patients or patient advocates requesting advice on issues related to medical conditions. If you need medical advice, please contact a health care professional.