The Nation's Health + life

Do I sell heart scans?

I came across a criticism of the Track Your Plaque program recently that suggested that it was nothing more than a program to sell CT heart scans.


I suppose if you say that the Track Your Plaque program is nothing more than a way to sell heart disease prevention, omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, vitamin D, better nutrition, and better identification of causes of heart disease . . . well, I believe that would be true.

But is the program a "front" to sell heart scans?

No, it is not, nor has it ever been.

I've heard about these peculiar suspicions about the program before. Though I've never taken them seriously, let me clear up any lingering uncertainty:

--I have no relationship with any heart scan center, scanning facility, or hospital other than to interpret heart scans.

I do not own a scanner, I have no financial interest in a scanner or scanning center, nor have I ever had any interest. I also have no plans to do so in the future. Let business people in the imaging business do that. I want no part of it. I have seen what these people go through and, frankly, I want no part of it, nor do I want the appearance that I am advocating scans to make money. I'm accused of trying to make money from scans even when I do not have any financial interest!

--I do not sell heart scans or imaging packages, nor have I ever done so.

You can't buy a scan through Track Your Plaque, The Heart Scan Blog, or through me. To me, heart scans are simply a measuring tool to identify the extent of coronary plaque, as well as a tracking tool to follow its course. Without it, there would be no Track Your Plaque. But there is also no alternative. The closest alternative would be carotid intimal-medial thickness, a technique, while useful, is a distant second choice to indirectly gauge coronary plaque by examining the thickness of the carotid lining (not carotid plaque). Perhaps in 10 years, a better measure to gauge and track coronary plaque will emerge that has superior aspects over CT heart scanning. If reasonable, safe, accessible, and quantitative, then Track Your Plaque may adopt that technology as its measuring tool.

Track Your Plaque is not about heart scanning; Track Your Plaque is about measuring and tracking plaque that, in 2008, is still best accomplished with CT heart scans.

--I make loads of money from heart scans and Track Your Plaque.

Yeah, right.

Track Your Plaque is a volunteer venture for my team; none of us get paid a penny for doing all we do, including me. We charge a membership fee on the website (somewhere around $6-7 a month) to pay our expenses, such as code writing for our proprietary software (much of it remains under development), printing costs, modest legal costs, the costs of doing business (e.g., accountant). Despite the fact that Track Your Plaque and the Heart Scan Blog occupies a substantial part of the day of the Track Your Plaque team, none of us are reimbursed for our time. I do believe, however, that this concept is so enormously powerful that it will, someday, pay us all enough to allow us to devote more time and effort to it.

Personally, I can't wait to devote more time and effort to this concept that is simple, logical, and effective. More research is needed, more development is needed, more discussion is needed. Right now, it is all accomplished outside of our busy schedules, including my full-time cardiology practice. I continue to have 7 am procedures, middle-of-the-night calls, weekend hospital rounds and emergencies (though virtually none of these are the patients involved in prevention, but the "other" people: atrial fibrillation, elderly heart failure patients, rhythm disorders, cardiomyopathies, pulmonary hypertension, peripheral vascular disease, the non-compliant).

--The book, Track Your Plaque, is a gimmick to sell you a heart scan .

No, it's a program that relies on this technology. But there's no special deal, no discounts, no steering to heart scan centers that I have a special arrangement with. No such thing exists, nor has there ever been such an arrangement.

I've heard it all. Early on, when I was helping my friend, Steve Burlingame and his wife, Nancy, set up Milwaukee Heart Scan, I helped by providing medical oversite, education of physicians and public, and interpreting heart scans. After all, in the "early days," nobody knew anything about heart scans. It was a long, hard climb against ignorance, habit, entrenched thinking, stubbornness, and stupidity. I've been paid next to nothing for all this. I told Steve long ago that, given the extraordinary expenses of maintaining an independent scanning center, that he should first pay his expenses, pay his technologists, receptionists, and nurse, pay himself, then pay me for reading scans if he had any money left over. Most of the time, Steve had nothing left over and I was paid nothing.

So, while some of my colleagues were assuming that I was rolling in money from "promoting" heart scans, the reality was that I was doing nearly everything for free. (It certainly wasn't the high life I was living; I don't drive a Mercedes, take fancy vacations, none of that. In fact, I work about 51 weeks a year.)

Why do I do this if it doesn't yield a big flow of money? Because I believe in it as a superior path to the conventional. If I were simply interested in making more money--I wouldn't do it. I would simply do what all my cardiology colleagues are doing: more heart catheterizations, more angioplasties and stents, learning how to do carotid stents, iliac stents, peripheral angioplasty, renal stents, acquiring the skills to put in defibrillators, new device insertion like umbrellas in the interatrial septum, etc. There's plenty more money in that. It's also not that hard. I know, because that is my background: high-risk cardiac interventions. That's what I was trained to do, that's what I did from a number years, until I started to see that this was nothing more than "putting out fires" in people who became increasingly ill and reliant on bail-out procedures. It makes lots of money, but it is also fundamentally wrong.

So, no, I do not sell heart scans, nor is the Track Your Plaque program or The Heart Scan Blog meant to promote heart scans except as a tool for tracking this disease.

That's it, pure and simple.

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