The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Dr. William Blanchet: A voice of reason

I don't mean to beat this discussion to a pulp, but looking back over the comments posted on forum, I am so deeply impressed with Dr. William Blanchet's grasp of the issues, that I posted his articulate and knowledgeable comments again.

Here is one post in which Dr. Blanchet, in response to accusations of trying to profit from heart scans, provides a wonderful summary of the logic and evidence behind the use of heart scans as the basis for heart disease prevention.

Yes, I have seen a dramatic reduction in coronary events.

Of 6,000 active patients, 48% being Medicare age and over, I have seen 4 heart attacks over the last 3+ years. 2 in 85 year old diabetics undergoing cancer surgery, one in a 90 year old with known disease and one in a 69 year old with no risk factors, who was healthy, and had never benefited from a heart scan.

The problem with coronary disease is that we rely on risk factors. Khot et al in JAMA 2003 showed that of 87,000 men with heart attacks, 62% had 0 or 1 major risk factor prior to their MI. According to ATP-III, almost everyone with 0-1 risk factors is low risk and most do not qualify for preventive treatment. EBT calcium imaging could identify 98% of these individuals as being at risk before their heart attack and treatment could be initiated to prevent their MI.

Treating to NCEP cholesterol goals prevents 30-40% of heart attacks. Treating to a goal of coronary calcium stability prevents 90% of heart attacks. Where I went to school, a 40% was an F. Why are we defending this result instead of striving to improve upon it? I am not making this up, look at Raggi's study in Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology 2004;24:1272, or Budoff Am J Card.[I believe it's the study Dr. Blanchet was referring to.]

I strongly disagree with the assertion that the stress test is a great risk stratifier. Laukkanen et al JACC 2001 studied 1,769 asymptomatic men with stress tests. Although failing the stress test resulted in an increased risk of future heart attack, 83% of the total heart attacks over the next 10 years occurred in those men who passed the stress test. Falk E, Shah PK, Fuster V Circulation 1995;92:657-671 demonstrated that 86% of heart attacks occur in vessels with less than 70% as the maximum obstruction. A vast majority of
patients with less than 70% vessel obstruction will pass their stress test.

Regarding [the] question of owning or referring for EBT imaging, I would be amused if it were not insulting. The mistake that is often made is that EBT imaging is a wildly profitable technology. It is not nearly as profitable as nuclear stress imaging. Indeed there are few EBT centers in the country that are as profitable as any random cardiologist's stress lab.

How can we justify not screening asymptomatic patients? Most heart attacks occur in patients with no prior symptoms and according to Steve Nissen, 150,000 Americans die each year from their first symptom of heart disease. My daughter is at this moment visiting with a friend who lost her father a few years ago to his first symptom of heart disease when she was 8 years old. That is not OK! We screen asymptomatic women for breast cancer risk. Women are 8 times more likely to die from heart disease than breast cancer. We do mass screening for colon cancer and we are over 10 times more likely to die from heart attacks than colon cancer. An EBT heart scan costs 1/8th the cost of a colonoscopy.

So what say we drop the sarcasm and look at this technology objectively. Read the literature, not just the editorial comments. This really does provide incredibly valuable information that saves lives.

Yes, a 90% reduction in heart attacks in my patients compared to the care I could provide 5 years ago when I was doing a lot of stress testing and referring for revascularization. Much better statistics than expected national or regional norms. I welcome your scrutiny.

That's probably the best, most concise summary of why heart scanning makes sense that I've ever heard. And it comes from a primary care physician in the trenches. With just a few paragraphs, Dr. Blanchet, in my view, handily trumps the arguments of my colleagues arguing to maintain the status quo of cholesterol testing, stress tests, and hospital procedures.

Dr. Blanchett talks openly about his affiliation with an imaging center in Boulder, Colorado, Front Range Preventive Imaging. I'm no stranger to the accusations Dr. Blanchet receives about trying to profit from the heart scan phenomenon. Ironically, heart scanning loses money. It is a preventive test, not a therapeutic, hospital-based procedure. Free-standing heart scan centers that do little else (perhaps virtual colonoscopies) usually manage to pay their bills but make little profit. Hospitals that offer heart scans usually do so as a "loss-leader," i.e., an inexpensive test that brings you in the door in the hopes that you will require more testing.

Accusations of profiteering off heart scans are, to those in the know, ridiculous and baseless. On the contrary, heart scans are both cost-saving and life-saving.