The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

A victory for SHAPE, CT heart scans, and doing what is RIGHT

The efforts of Texas House of Representatives Rep. Rene Oliveira and the SHAPE Guidelines committee have paid off: The Texas legislature passed a bill that requires health insurers to cover CT heart scans.

(NOTE: Don't make the same mistake that the media often makes and confuse CT heart scans with CT coronary angiography : two different tests, two different results, two different levels of radiation exposure. The difference is discussed here.)

Track Your Plaque previously reported the release of the SHAPE Guidelines, an ambitious effort to open CT heart scanning to people who would benefit from a simple screening test for coronary disease. Rep. Rene Oliveira initially introduced the bill in 2006, after having a heart scan uncovered extensive coronary plaque that resulted in coronary bypass surgery.

The bill requires that health-benefit providers cover the cost of CT heart scans (and carotid ultrasound) in men between the ages of 45-76, women 55-76, as well as anyone with diabetes or at "intermediate-risk" or higher for coronary disease by Framingham risk score.

The usual panel of cardiology knuckleheads stepped to the media podium, expressing their incredulity that something as "unvalidated" as heart scans could gain the backing of legislative mandate. Heartwire carried this comment:

"Contacted by heartwire, Dr Amit Khera (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas) confirmed there are still no comprehensive, adequately powered studies showing that these screening tests lead to better outcomes. In a phone interview, Khera said he has major concerns about how physicians will use these tests, particularly primary-care physicians. "I gave a talk last week to primary-care doctors, and there were probably 250 people in the room, and when I asked how many people had ordered a calcium scan, just one person raised a hand. . . . Most people don't even know what to do with the Framingham risk score, so they're going to follow an algorithm that they don't know how to follow to order a test result that they don't know what to do with. "

It's the same criticisms hurled at heart scans over the years despite literally thousands of studies validating their application.

Studies have conclusively shown that:

--Coronary calcium scores generated by a CT heart scan outperform any other risk measure for coronary disease, including LDL cholesterol, c-reactive protein, total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, blood pressure.
--Coronary calcium scores yield a graded, trackable index of coronary risk. Scores that increase correlate with increased risk of cardiovascular events; scores that remain unchanged correlate with much reduced risk.
--A coronary calcium score of zero--no detectable calcium--correlates with extremely low 5-year risk for cardiovascular events.
--Coronary calcium scores correlate with other measures of coronary disease. Heart scans correlate with coronary angiography, quantitative coronary angiography, carotid ultrasound (intimal-medial thickness and plaque severity), ankle-brachial index, and stress tests, including radionuclide (nuclear) perfusion imaging.

The reluctance of my colleagues to embrace heart scans stems from two issues, for the most part:

1) No study has yet been performed showing that knowing what the score is vs. not knowing what the score is changes prognosis. That's true. But it is also true of the great majority of practices in medicine. While many wrongs don't make a right, the miserable and widespread failure of other coronary risk measures, like LDL cholesterol or c-reactive protein, to readily and reliably detect hidden coronary disease creates a gaping void for improved efforts at early detection. If your LDL cholesterol is 140 mg/dl, do you or don't you have coronary disease? If your doctor's response is "Just take a statin drug anyway" you've been done a great disservice. (If and when this sort of study gets done, its huge cost--outcome studies have to be large and last many years--it will likely be a statin study. It is unlikely it will include such Track Your Plaque strategies that help reduce heart scan scores, like vitamin D and correction of small LDL particles.)

2) Fears over overuse of hospital procedures triggered by heart scans. This is a legitimate concern--if the information provided by a heart scan is misused. Heart scans should never--NEVER--lead directly to heart catheterization, stents, bypass surgery. Heart scans do not change the indications for performing revascularization (angioplasty, stents, bypass). Just because 20% of my cardiology colleagues are more concerned with profit rather than patient welfare does not invalidate the value of the test. Just because the mechanic at the local garage gouged you by replacing a carburetor for $800 when all you need was a new spark plug does not mean that we should outlaw all auto mechanics. Abuse is the fault of the abuser , not of the tool used to exercise the abuse.

All in all, while I am not a fan of legislating behavior in healthcare, the blatant and extreme ignorance of this simple tool for uncovering hidden heart disease makes the Texas action a huge success for heart disease prevention. I hope that this success will raise awareness, not just in Texas, but in other states and cities in which similar systemic neglect is the rule.

Remember: CT heart scans are tools for prevention , not to uncover "need" for procedures. They serve as a starting point to decide whether or not an intensive program of prevention is in order, and I don't mean statin vs. no statin.

Though not a multi-million dollar statin drug study, I have NEVER seen a heart attack or "need" for procedure in any person who has stopped progression or reduced their heart scan score. A small cohort from my practice was reported:

Effect of a Combined Therapeutic Approach of Intensive Lipid Management, Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation, and Increased Serum 25 (OH) Vitamin D on Coronary Calcium Scores in Asymptomatic Adults.

Davis W, Rockway S, Kwasny M.

The impact of intensive lipid management, omega-3 fatty acid, and vitamin D3 supplementation on atherosclerotic plaque was assessed through serial computed tomography coronary calcium scoring (CCS). Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol reduction with statin therapy has not been shown to reduce or slow progression of serial CCS in several recent studies, casting doubt on the usefulness of this approach for tracking atherosclerotic progression. In an open-label study, 45 male and female subjects with CCS of >/= 50 without symptoms of heart disease were treated with statin therapy, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acid supplementation to achieve low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides /=60 mg/dL; and vitamin D3 supplementation to achieve serum levels of >/=50 ng/mL 25(OH) vitamin D, in addition to diet advice. Lipid profiles of subjects were significantly changed as follows: total cholesterol -24%, low-density lipoprotein -41%; triglycerides -42%, high-density lipoprotein +19%, and mean serum 25(OH) vitamin D levels +83%. After a mean of 18 months, 20 subjects experienced decrease in CCS with mean change of -14.5% (range 0% to -64%); 22 subjects experienced no change or slow annual rate of CCS increase of +12% (range 1%-29%). Only 3 subjects experienced annual CCS progression exceeding 29% (44%-71%). Despite wide variation in response, substantial reduction of CCS was achieved in 44% of subjects and slowed plaque growth in 49% of the subjects applying a broad treatment program.