The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

"Yes, Johnnie, there really is an Easter bunny"

A Heart Scan Blog reader recently posted this comment:

You wouldn't believe the trouble I'm having trying to get someone to give me a CT Heart Scan without trying to talk me into a Coronary CTA [CT angiogram]. Every facility I've talked to keeps harping on the issue that calcium scoring only shows "hard" plaque...and not soft.

I also had a nurse today tell me that 30% of the people that end up needing a coronary catheterization had calcium scores of ZERO. That doesn't sound right to me. What determines whether or not someone needs a coronary catheterization anyway?

There was a time not long ago when I saw heart scan centers as the emerging champions of heart disease detection and prevention. Heart scans, after all, provided the only rational means to directly uncover hidden coronary plaque. They also offered a method of tracking progression--or regression--of coronary plaque. No other tool can do that. Carotid ultrasound (IMT)? Indirectly and imperfectly, since it measures thickening of the carotid artery lining, partially removed from the influences that create coronary atherosclerotic plaque. Cholesterol? A miserable failure for a whole host of reasons.

Then something happened. General Electric bought the developer and manufacturer of the electron-beam tomography CT scanner, Imatron. (Initial press releases were glowing: The Future of Electron Beam Tomography Looks Better than Ever.The new eSpeed C300 electron beam tomographic scanner features the industry’s fastest temporal resolution, and is now backed by the strength of GE Medical Systems. Imatron and GE have joined forces to provide comprehensive solutions for entrepreneurs and innovative medical practitioners .)


Within short order, GE scrapped the entire company and program, despite the development of an extraordinary device, the C-300, introduced in 2001, and the eSpeed, introduced in 2003, both yanked by GE. The C-300 and eSpeed were technological marvels, providing heart scans at incredible speed with minimal radiation.

Why would GE do such a thing, buy Imatron and its patent rights, along with the fabulous new eSpeed device, then dissolve the company that developed the technology and scrap the entire package?

Well, first of all they can afford to, whether or not the device represented a technological advancement. Second (and this is my reading-between-the-lines interpretation of the events), it was in their best financial interest. Not in the interest of the public's health, nor the technology of heart scanning, but they believed that focusing on the multi-detector technology to be more financially rewarding to GE.

GE, along with Toshiba, Siemens, and Philips, saw the dollar signs of big money with the innovations in multi-detector technology (MDCT). They began to envision a broader acceptance of these devices into mainstream practice with the technological improvements in CT angiography, a device (or several) in every hospital and major clinic.

Anyway, this represents a long and winding return to the original issue: How I once believed that heart scan centers would be champions of heart disease detection and reversal. This has, unfortunately, not proven to be true.

Yes, there are heart scan centers where you can obtain a heart scan and also connect with people and physicians who believe in prevention of this disease. I believe that Milwaukee Heart Scan is that way, as is Dr. Bill Blanchet's Front Range Preventive Imaging, Dr. Roger White's Holistica Hawaii, and Dr. John Rumberger's Princeton Longevity Center.

But the truth is that most heart scan centers have evolved into places that offer heart scans, but more as grudging lip service to the concept of early detection earned with sweat and tears by the early efforts of the heart scan centers. But the more financially rewarding offering of CT coronary angiograms, while a useful service when used properly, has corrupted the prevention and reversal equation. "Entry level" CT heart scans have been subverted in the quest for profit.

CT angiograms pay better: $1800-4000, compared to $100-500 for a heart scan (usually about $250). More importantly, who can resist the detection of a "suspicious" 50% blockage that might benefit from the "real" test, a heart catheterization? Can anyone honestly allow a 50% blockage to be without a stent?

CT angiograms not only yield more revenue, they also serve as an effective prelude to "downstream" revenue. By this equation, a CT angiogram easily becomes a $40,000 hospital procedure with a stent or two, or three, or occasionally a $100,000 bypass. Keep in mind that the majority of people who are persuaded that a simple heart scans are not good enough and would be better off with the "superior" test of CT angiography are asymptomatic --without symptoms of chest pain, breathelessness, etc. Thus, the argument is that people without symptoms, usually with normal stress tests, benefit from prophylactic revascularization procedures like stents and bypass.

There are no data whatsoever to support this practice. People who have no symptoms attributable to heart disease and have normal stress tests do NOT benefit from heart procedures like heart catheterization. They do, of course, benefit from asking why they have atherosclerotic plaque in the first place, followed by a preventive program to correct the causes.

So, beware: It is the heart scan I believe in, a technique involving low radiation and low revenue potential. CT angiograms are useful tests, but often offered for the wrong reasons. If we all keep in mind that the economics of testing more often than not determine what is being told to us, then it all makes sense. If you want a simple heart scan, just say so. No--insist on it.

Take trust out of the equation. Don't trust people in health care anymore than you'd trust the used car salesman with "a great deal."

Finally, in answer to the reader's last comment about 30% of people needing heart catheterizations having zero calcium scores, this is absolute unadulterated nonsense. I'm hoping that the nurse who said this was taken out of context. Her comments are, at best, misleading. That's why I conduct this Heart Scan Blog and our website, They are your unbiased sources of information on what is true, honest, and not tainted by the smell of lots of procedural revenue.