The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Treat the patient, not the test

"Treat the patient, not the test."

That is a common "pearl" of medical wisdom often passed on during medical training.

It refers to the fact that we should always view any laboratory or imaging test in the context of the live, human patient and not just treat any unexpected value that doesn't seem to make sense.

I raise this issue because it recently came up on a discussion on the Track Your Plaque Forum. A Member with a high heart scan score of around 1100 was advised by his doctor that it should be ignored, because he'd prefer to treat the patient, not the test. The patient is apparently slender, physically active, and entirely without symptoms, with favorable cholesterol values as well. The high heart scan score didn't seem to jive with the appearance of the patient, as viewed by this doctor.

This common phrase is meant to impart wisdom. It is a reminder that we treat real people, not just a jumble of laboratory values.

But the unspoken part of the equation is that judgment needs to be applied. A well looking person who shows an unexpected rise in white blood cell count could just have a screwy result, or could have leukemia. Liver tests (AST, ALT) that top 400 could represent a fluke, or dehydration incurred during a long workout, or hepatitis from a long ago blood transfusion.

Yes, treat the patient. But don't be an idiot and entirely dismiss the signficance of an unexpected laboratory or imaging test. A heart scan score of 1100 should be as readily dismissed as discovering a white blood cell count of 90,000 (normal is less than 12,000), or a 5 cm mass in the lung. The absence of symptoms or the failure of conventional risk factors to suggest causation is insufficient reason to dismiss the concrete findings of a test.

In this particular person, dismissing the significance of the heart scan finding by suggesting that the doctor should treat the patient, not the test, is tantamount to:

--Colossal ignorance
--A certain sentencing of the hapless patient to future major heart procedures, heart attack or death (20-25% likelihood every year, or a virtual certainty over the next 5 years).

There is an ounce of wisdom in this old medical pearl. But there's also plenty of room for a knuckleheaded doctor to misconstrue and abuse its meaning for the sake of covering up his/her ignorance, laziness, or lack of caring.