The Nation's Health + [Stress tests]

Stress tests: Beware the "false positive" stress test

There's a widely-known (among cardiologists) problem with nuclear stress tests. It's called the "false positive." (Nuclear stress tests are known as stress Cardiolites, stress thalliums, stress Myoviews, persantine stress tests, adenosine stress tests)

Stress tests, nuclear and otherwise, are helpful for identifying areas of poor blood flow. If an area of poor blood flow is detected and the area is substantial, then there may be greater risk of heart attack and other undesirable events in the relatively near future.

What "false positive" means is a stress test that shows an abnormality but it's not true--it is falsely abnormal. There are a number of reasons why this can happen. The problem is that this phenomenon is very common. Up to 20% of nuclear stress tests are false positives.

There are indeed situations where there may an abnormality and it is not clear whether it is true or false. This may lead to a justifiable heart catheterization or CT coronary angiogram. But, given the extraordinary number of false positives, there's a lot of gray in interpreting these tests. Hospital staff, in fact, call nuclear medicine "unclear" medicine. It's common knowledge that you can often see just about anything you want to see on a nuclear image of the heart. Abnormalities in the bottom of the heart, the "inferior" wall, are especially common due to the overlap of the diaphragm with the heart muscle, yielding the appearance of reduced blood flow. Defects in the front of the heart heart are common in females with large breasts for the same reasons.

The problem: The uncertainty inherent in nuclear stress tests opens the door to the unscrupulous or lazy practitioner. Any blip, tick, or imperfection on the nuclear images serve as carte blanche to drag you into the hospital for procedures.

This abusive practice is, in my experience, shockingly common for two reasons: 1) It pays better to do heart catheterizations, and 2) Defensive medicine.

What's the disincentive? Only doing the right thing and maintaining a clear conscience. Slim reasons for many of my colleagues--and a lot less money.

If you are without symptoms and feel fine, and a nuclear stress test is advised by your doctor, followed by a discussion of an abnormality, insist on a discussion of exactly what is abnormal, just how abnormal, and what the alternatives might be. If you receive unsatisfactory or incomplete answers despite your best effort, it's time for another opinion.