BACKGROUND: The model for management of patients with heart failure may be a key determinant of morbidity and quality of life. Development of a better management strategy for these patients requires determination of the reasons for decompensation that leads to hospitalization. OBJECTIVES: To ascertain and rank the principal reasons for hospitalization of patients who have heart failure. METHODS: Retrospective audit of all 1992 admissions (N = 1031; 691 patients) coded for heart failure at a Veterans Affairs medical center and a tertiary care university medical center. RESULTS: The diagnosis of heart failure was verified by preset criteria in 72% of the patients. Of the 496 patients with documented heart failure, worsening heart failure was a main reason for admission in 390 (79%). Despite different socioeconomic backgrounds, excessive sodium retention was the leading factor (55%) associated with decompensation in patients at both institutions. Other factors precipitated admission much less often. CONCLUSIONS: Many hospitalizations for heart failure might be avoided by case management directed at lessening sodium overload. Increased use of medications known to be effective in persons with heart failure (angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors, digoxin, and adequate diuretic therapy) might reduce the likelihood of decompensation. Implementation of behavioral interventions to assist patients with self-monitoring signs of sodium retention and to improve compliance with medications and dietary sodium restrictions are strategies for further reducing the risk of decompensation.

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