The Nation's Health + life

Roger's near-miss CT angiogram experience

Heart Scan Blog reader, Roger, described his near-miss experience with CT coronary angiograms.

Hoping to obtain just a simple CT heart scan, he was bullied to get a CT coronary angiogram instead. Roger held strong and just asked for the test that we all should be having, a CT heart scan.

I posted yesterday that I was about to have my first CT heart scan...well, it was an interesting experience for reasons I coudn't possibly have anticipated. Dr. Davis has commented in the past on the confusion in the media about the difference between a CT calcium score scan, and a CT angiography, the latter requiring a far higher dose of radiation. I assumed this was a source of confusion only among patients and lay folks, but, lo and behold, I discovered today that doctors--or at least their helpers--can be just as confused.

Here's my story:

After checking in, I asked the receptionist to see if she had any information on whether my medical insurance was covering the scan. She called someone, and I heard her say over the phone, "He's here for a CT angiogram." At that point my ears perked up. I explained I wasn't here for a CT angiogram, only a regular CT scan. "Well, do you want to call your doctor and talk about this?" she asked. No, I said, I would like to ask one of their folks to verify exactly what test my doctor had ordered. As luck would have it, the technician was walking by at that point. "Is this a CT angiogram?" the receptionist asked. "No, it's just a CT calcium score scan" was the reply. But apparently the technician had been unclear herself, and had called my doctor just to verify. In other words, the "default" procedure they were accustomed to doing at this august Houston vascular clinic was a CT angiogram.

In fact, my appointment was even listed on their calendar as a "CT angiogram." For all I know, my insurance will be billed for the same. Later, during the procedure, the technician acted surprised I wasn't doing the "full test." I explained I had minimal risk factors (actually only one, an HDL of 34 a couple of years ago, which has since been raised to 50 partly as a result of taking advice from this site), but that my doctor was progressive (he is an MD for the Houston Astros) and thought it was a good idea since there is heart disease in my immediate family. My doctor did indeed prescribe only a CT calcium score scan, but it seems to have been an order that this clinic, at least, wasn't all that used to seeing.

So, I guess the message is: we have a lot of educating to do. Had I not been a faithful reader of these pages, I certainly wouldn't have known what kind of test I was about to get, or what questions to ask!

As for the heart scan itself, a piece of cake. If you can hold your breath, you can take this test. Just be sure it is the right one!

Why the "push" towards CT coronary angiograms and not "just" a CT heart scan? Well, I know it's shocking but it's . . . money!

CT coronary angiograms yield around $1800-$4000 per test. CT heart scans yield somewhere around $200. Though the scan center support staff might not care too much about the money themselves, their administrators likely make the cost distinctions clear to them.

Another reason: Most scan center staff, ironically, don't understand what a heart scan means, nor do they understand how it might serve to launch a program of prevention. They do understand that severe blockage by CT angiogram "needs" to be stented or bypassed. So they push patients towards things they understand.

Nobody makes money from CT heart scans, just as nobody makes money from a mammogram. Heart scans also don't lead to heroic, "lifesaving" procedures. They just lead to this sleepy, unexciting, inexpensive thing called prevention.

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