The Nation's Health + life

Heart Scan Frustration

Ideally, you get a heart scan and your doctor sits down with you and provides a rational, insightful discussion on what the results mean.

Is heart attack in your future? If so, when? Are blockages present? What is the role of other tests like stress tests and heart catheterizations? Do CT coronary angiograms add any important information? What is the role of cholesterol? Can diet or nutritional supplements impact on heart scan score?

But what happens if you are unable to get the answers you desire? What if you get brusque responses, or your doctor just doesn't know? Or what if there is a clear conflict of interest or the possibility of financially-tainted advice? ("You need a heart catheterization right away or you'll die of a heart attack!")

One example of this process was posted by a frustrated Member of Track Your Plaque who found that answers were virtually unobtainable from his/her doctors:

I underwent a heart scan a few weeks ago, based on a recommendation from a doctor. I assumed that, since I was paying for it, and I requested it, the results would be fully explained to me.

Late on a Friday afternoon, the radiologist who intrepreted it called me and said I would be receiving a report, and so would the doctor. I asked that she explain them to me. She said their policy was to give the report to the doctor and let him explain them. She did say I was in the 90th percentile for my age--and that 10% had a worse score. I asked where do we go from here, and she said, if you're not having symptoms, maybe lifestyle changes, but YOUR DOCTOR will let you know. I asked for a copy of the films and reports, and was told YOUR DOCTOR can request them. I called back a little later and she was gone. It was starting to sink in that I must have a terrible score. In the meantime, I did what I should have done before I went for the scan---looked up information on the internet, and read about calcium scoring. This website [Track Your Plaque] hadn't showed up in my Google search, so a lot of the information was useless.

I did manage to get the score of 186, with the breakdown per artery from someone at the clinic, but only after I insisted I paid for the test, I have a right to the information. 'Course having a score per artery didn't really help---what did it mean? ie: if a 72, how did that correlate to any blockages? Was it a big lump...or spread along the wall throughout the artery.

I had an appt. the following Tuesday with THE DOCTOR---a very busy doctor. After an hour and 1/2 wait in a crowded waiting room, I got to see him. We discussed briefly another issue, and he started walking out. I followed him out and said I wanted my full l5 minutes of time allotted in their scheduling, which seemed to irritate him.

I followed him into his office and said, WHAT ABOUT THE HEART SCAN? What do the numbers mean? He responded that he didn't know, he'd have to see the films, but don't worry--you're probably ok, and I should get a thallium stress test anyway. He said he couldn't intrepret the numbers, or give an opinion on where the plaque was or how it was configured.

I then went to the interventional cardiologist that afternoon and the thallium stress test was scheduled. I asked about the HEART SCAN, and again, no acknowledgment. I asked if he would get the films and explain the results, and again no acknowledment as he was walking out the door.

After this lengthy saga.....MY QUESTION IS....since this is a test you can order yourself (literature at center made mention of the tests you can get without a doctors request)......WHO IS THEIR FIDUCIARY RESPONSIBILITY TO WHEN IT COMES TO EXPLAINING THE RESULTS?

I learned more on this website [Track Your Plaque], and the emailed book then I did dealing with two doctors and the center itself. Thinking back, there was nothing but a brochure on the test at the center. No "Track your Plaque" stuff.

Day 2
I called the scanning center and relayed my dilemma. I was put in touch with another radiologist--a very informative one, who appeared passionate about heart scans as a preventive test. He compared them to mammograms. He hadn't heard about the "Track Your Plaque" program but was going to check it out. He said people varied in their responses to the test results, as well as doctors/cardiologists as to the next step. (ie: lifestyle changes..the next test, etc). He seemed to feel blockages of more than 50% for many cardiologists would indicated angioplasty and stenting.

I'm going back to review the films with him later this week. He wasn't that concerned with the 101 reading on the right artery. The 72 on the left he had concerns with and indicated the CAT test [CT angiography] would offer more as far as how much was there, and approx. blockage, and could be a baseline to compare to in the future. He said some cardiologists would go right to angioplasty...some to a CAT which is more conservative...some might watch and encourage lifestyle changes. He said the Heart Scan doesn't show soft plaque. He also said the internist who referred me was one of only a few in the city that felt strongly about the heart scan---and probably used it to take further action via a referral, and just didn't have time to discuss it, with the way medicine is run these days.

This Member's frustrated post pretty much sums it up:

1) Doctors don't seem to have the time nor motivation to be bothered about offering advice that leads to prevention of disease.

2) The tendency is to always ask, "Are heart procedures necessary?", not "How did this happen?" or "What can we do about this to keep it from getting worse?" How about diet, supplements, and other tools to use at home?

The obvious uneasiness of the radiologist, the last physician this Member spoke with, can just as easily lead to boneheaded advice: Maybe getting a stent isn't such a bad idea. Maybe a CT angiogram is an absolute necessity.

I hear comments like this every day. It is the reason why I continue to plug away at this program and try to set things straight.

By the way, subscribers to our Track Your Plaque Newsletter just heard about our latest success story, Roy, who dropped his heart scan score over 500 points. If you are yet not a newsletter subscriber, click here.

Copyright 2008 House, MD

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