The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Talking heads

Tne Philadelphia NBC affiliate's website carried this commentary from a colleague of mine:

Mark from the Lehigh Valley is curious about scans that can detect heart disease.

He asked, "I am in my early 50s. My father had a heart attack in his 40s. I am healthy with no symptoms of heart disease, should I consider a heart scan?"

"Well, Mark, occasionally family history needs to be considered more closely. If your father had coronary disease at a relatively young age at the absence of any known risk factor for heart disease for example diabetes, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, than your level of risk should be considered more closely," Dr. Kevin Shinal, a cardiologist, said.

"There are a number of studies available to access [sic] your level of risk. One such study is a calcium score. A calcium score is a form of a CAT scan that access [sic] the calcium burden or presence of calcium in your coronary arteries. It assigns you a score and score is translated into a level of cardiovascular risk," Shinal said.

But the doctor warned because Mark doesn't have active symptoms, the scan probably wouldn't be covered by insurance.

Was there an understandable answer in there? I certainly couldn't find it.

Why pick on some yokel responding inarticulately to the local media's quest for content? Because this is, all too often, what the public hears: Ill-informed blather from someone who has little or no understanding of the issues. Maybe this doctor wanted his practice group to get some free publicity. "Doctor, could you just answer a few questions from viewers?"

Unfortunately, it's not just local media who are guilty of consulting with know-nothings with only passing knowledge of an issue. National media are guilty of it, too. The need to fill airtime with content is better filled with talking heads who present a compelling story, whether or not it is accurate or insightful, rather than an expert with deep insight into a topic who might not present as pretty a story. I've seen this countless times. A good portion of my day, in fact, is occupied responding to patient questions based on the misinformation presented in some media report.

My message of this brief rant: Be very careful of the messages delivered by the media, even if provided by some supposed "expert." In fact, I regard "experts" in health about as believable as politicians. Sure, sometimes they provide accurate information. But they often do not, or provide information with limited understanding. Or, worse, information intended to serve some hidden agenda.

Were the media to ask me to respond to the question, however, I would say:

"Yes, you should absolutely have a heart scan--yesterday! With your family history, there is no other way to accurately, easily, and inexpensively quantify the amount of coronary atherosclerosis in your heart's arteries. A stress test only uncovers advanced disease. A heart catheterization is overkill and absolutely not indicated in an asymptomatic man. Judging the presence of heart disease from cholesterol values is folly.

"What's left? A CT heart scan. So, yes, you need a CT heart scan ASAP with no doubt whatsoever."

But they didn't ask.