The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

If a disease lacks a procedure . . . create one

Congestive heart failure is among the most common diagnoses in the hospital nowadays.

Congestive heart failure is the result of injury to the heart muscle such as that occurring during heart attack, viral infections of the heart (myocarditis), poorly controlled high blood pressure, and a smattering of other rare causes. Eight million Americans with congestive heart failure account for over one million hospital admissions annually (AHA Update, 2007). It has become so common, in fact, that it has ranked as number one cause for hospital admission for the last several years.

Heart failure is a frightening condition causing the sufferer to gasp for breath. Excess fluid accumulates in the lungs, amplifying the work of breathing and imparting a feeling of unease. Some heart failure sufferers struggle to the point of blacking out or requiring mechanical ventilation on a respirator.

There are a number of standard treatments for heart failure that usually rapidly rescue the patient from the brink of respiratory failure. These generally consist of intravenous diuretics that force the kidney to clear excess water rapidly, medications to increase heart muscle strength, and other treatments. It’s not uncommon for a heart failure patient to drop 10–20 lbs. in water weight with treatment. The treatments are quite effective for the majority of patients with rapid relief of the breathlessness generally obtained within hours.

However, the problem with congestive heart failure is not generally the rapidity or effectiveness of acutely providing relief, it is the chronic recurring nature of the disease. Someone can come to the hospital, obtain prompt treatment with relief of the breathlessness within 48–72 hours, only to return to the hospital in several weeks with a recurrence of the same process.

As common as congestive heart is in hospitals, it has also presented the perennial problem: how to convert this frequent reason for hospitalization into a profit opportunity. Some people who experience heart failure will undergo the usual sequence of heart procedures of heart catheterization, stents, bypass surgery, valve surgery, etc. But, because heart failure tends to be a repeatedly recurring event, even patients tire of the “need” for heart procedures. Then how can more heart failure occurrences be converted into profitable events?

A unique principle operates in the medical device market: If a disease lacks a procedure . . . create one.

Several problems are solved by such a principle. First, procedures are much more generously reimbursed by insurers than standard medical care without procedures. Two, the physician is provided an opportunity to also bill at a higher level. Third, patients often love the more dramatic, heroic nature of procedures, whether or not there is true benefit.

To the rescue of the poorly reimbursed area of congestive heart failure walks a Minnesota company called CHF Solutions, Inc., manufacturers of the Aquadex device.

Cost? $14,500 plus $900 per filter every time a patient gets one treatment. The Aquadex works by a decades-old process called ultrafiltration, used for many years but used principally for kidney failure not severe enough to require regular dialysis. New York cardiologist Howard Levin simply adapted the process, using smaller catheters inserted into the arm veins, in 2000. As in conventional ultrafiltration, blood is taken from the body from a catheter, passed through a filter that removes excess water, then returned to the body.

This is a serious effort. Dr. Levin raised $51 million in venture backing on top of $12 million seed capital. The device sailed through the Food & Drug Administration in June 2002, since it was labeled a newer form of ultrafiltration, thereby obtaining approval through the FDA’s 501k rule, a minor modification of existing technology. (Many truly technologically unique devices do come to market and therefore require the full process of FDA approval, a generally lengthy and costly process for devices. However, there’s another way: bill a device as “substantially equivalent” to an existing technology and the approval process is relatively quick and easy.)

In an industry publication, Cath Lab Digest, Dr. Levin was interviewed in February, 2003, and proclaimed, “We can treat many of the symptoms of heart failure, but we’re a long ways off from a cure. That’s why new technologies are so exciting, such as LVADs for the very sickest heart failure patients; biventricular pacing for the small subset of patients who seem to benefit from it; and simplified ultrafiltration such as the System 100 that can be applied to a broad range of congestive heart failure patients with fluid overload. “

What does this have to do with heart scans and heart disease reversal? Nothing─directly. I highlight this phenomenon because it caricatures how things work in medicine and health care in general, more so in cardiovascular diseases in which the profit motive is especially deeply ingrained. Focus on a need, then generate a profitable treatment for it. Profits are what drive growth, marketing, sales, and expansion into new revenue-generating niches.

Sadly, the reverse principle does not work: Replace profitable procedures with unprofitable strategies, regardless of their effectiveness. Replacing coronary angioplasty and coronary stent implantation, or bypass surgery, with intensive prevention efforts is no easy matter. Just witness the enormous resistance to the concept of early heart disease detection achieved with heart scans. A day doesn’t go by without a major media outlet bashing heart scans, or confusing them with CT coronary angiograms with claims of excessive radiation.

But the mounting volume of criticisms against heart scans also means that they are gaining some traction in mainstream thinking. But will there be a day when they replace the need for profitable procedures? I believe they will, when coupled with a powerful program of prevention, but don’t hold your breath.