The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Heart scan mis-information on WebMD

If you want information on how prescription drugs fit into your life, then go to WebMD.

But, if you are looking for information that cuts through the bullcrap, is untainted by the heavy-handed tactics of the drug industry, or doesn't support the "a heart catheterization for everyone" mentality, then don't go there.

A Heart Scan Blog reader turned up this gem on the WebMD site:

Should I have a coronary calcium scan to check for heart disease?

In their report, they list some reasons why a heart scan should not be obtained:

Most of the time, a physical exam and other tests can give your doctor enough information about your risk for heart disease.

You've got to be kidding me. What tests are they talking about?

EKG? An EKG is a crude test that tells us virtually nothing about the coronary arteries or risk for heart attack. It is helpful for heart rhythm disorders and other abnormalities, but virtually useless for coronary disease unless a heart attack is underway or has already occurred.

Cholesterol? What level of cholesterol tells you whether you have heart disease? Tim Russert, for instance, had the same cholesterol values 5 years before his death as on the day of his death. How would cholesterol have told his doctor that heart disease was present? Does an LDL cholesterol of 180 mg/dl tell you that someone has heart disease, while a value of 130 mg/dl does not?

Stress test? You mean like the normal stress test Bill Clinton had 3 months before his near-fatal collapse? Stress tests are a gauge of coronary flow, not of coronary atherosclerosis. Huge amounts of coronary plaque can be present while a stress test--flow--remains normal.

No, a physical exam does not uncover hidden heart disease. The annual physical is, in fact, a miserable failure for detection of hidden heart disease.

You already know that your risk for heart disease is low or high. The test works best in people who are at medium risk but have no symptoms.

This bit of fiction comes from a compromise statement in the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association "consensus" document detailing the role of heart scans in heart disease detection. Because conventional thinkers don't like the idea of very early detection in seemingly "low risk" people, nor do they like the idea of diabetics and smokers getting a heart scan because it's "obvious" that they are already at high risk, the middle ground was taken: Scan only people at "intermediate risk."

What the heck is "intermediate risk"? Are you intermediate risk?

In real life, using standard criteria (e.g., Framingham scoring) to decide who is low-, intermediate-, or high-risk fails to identify over 1/3 of people with heart disease, while subjecting many without heart disease (plaque) to needless treatment (meaning statins, since that's the only real preventive treatment on most doc's armamentarium).

Another fact: Heart scans are quantitative, not just normal or abnormal. Your heart scan score could be 5, it could be 150, it could be 500, or 5000---it makes a world of difference. The risk of someone with a score of 5000 is at very different risk than someone with a score of 5. It also provides much greater precision in determining a specific individual's risk.

The test could give a high score even if your arteries aren't blocked. This might lead to extra tests that you don't need.

This is true--if you doctor has no idea what he's doing.

This is like saying that you should never take your car to the repair shop because all mechanics are crooks. If you have an unscrupulous cardiologist who tells you that your heart scan score of 25 means you are a "walking time bomb" and heart catheterization is necessary to determine whether you "need" a stent . . . well, this is no different than the shady mechanic who advises you that your car's engine needs to be rebuilt for $3000, when all you really needed was a few new spark plugs.

Coronary plaque is coronary plaque, and all coronary plaque has potential for rupture (heart attack)--even if it doesn't block flow. This is true at a score of 10, or 100, or 1000--all plaque is potentially rupture-prone, though the more plaque you have, the greater the likelihood.

Not all blocked arteries have calcium. So you could get a low calcium score and still be at risk.

They're missing the point: ANY calcium score carries risk, so a low score should not be interpreted as having no risk. But, just because a procedure like stenting or bypass surgery is not necessary to restore flow, it does not mean that risk for plaque rupture is not present--it is.

Any heart scan score should be taken seriously, meaning sufficient reason to engage in a program of heart disease prevention.

Although not perfect, coronary calcium scoring remains the easiest, most accessible, and least expensive means for identifying and quantifying coronary atherosclerosis--whether or not WebMD and drug industry money endorse them.