The Nation's Health + [life]

Heart disease prevention: Warning: Your cardiologist may be dangerous to your health!

Warren had a moderately high LDL cholesterol for years and took a statin drug sporadically over the past 7 years. Finally retired from a successful real estate investment business, he had a CT heart scan to assess his heart disease status.

Warren's score: 49. At age 59, this put him in the lowest 25%, with an estimated heart attack risk of 1% per year or less--a relatively low risk. At this heart scan score, the likelihood of an abnormal stress test was less than 3%, or a 97% likelihood of a normal stress test. Most would argue that a stress test would be unproductive, given its low probability of yielding useful information. In other words, there would be a 97% probability of normal blood flow through Warren's coronary plaque, and less than 3% likelihood that a stent or bypass surgery would be necessary.

Warren was also without symptoms. He hiked and biked without any chest discomfort or breathlessness. A prevention program like Track Your Plaque to gain control over future coronary plaque growth was all that was necessary and Warren had high hopes for a life free of heart attack and major heart procedures.

Then why did he go through a heart catheterization?

Warren did indeed undergo a heart catheterization on the advice of his cardiologist. When I met Warren for another opinion, it became immediately obvious that the heart catheterization was completely unnecessary. Then why was this invasive procedure done? There can only be a few reasons:

--The cardiologist didn't truly understand the meaning of the heart scan score. "We need to do a 'real' test."

--The cardiologist was terrified of malpractice risk for underdiagnosing or undertreating any condition, no matter how mild.

--The cardiologist wanted to make more money. Talking about heart disease prevention is a money-saving, not a money-making, approach.

Regardless of which of the three motivations was at work here, they're all inexcusable. A disservice was done to this man: he had an unnecessary procedure, incurred some risk of complication in the process, and gained nothing.

An ignorant or profit-seeking cardiologist is worse than the unscrupulous car mechanic who, when presented with an unknowing car repair customer, proceeds to replace the carburetor and rebuild the engine when a simple 5-minute adjustment would have taken care of the problem.

I estimate that no more than 10% of my colleagues follow such practices, but it's often hard to know who is in that 10%. Ask pointed questions: Why is the catheterization necessary? What is the likelihood of finding information useful to my health? What are the alternatives? (By the way, the emerging CT coronary angiograms can be a useful alternative in some situations like this.)

Track Your Plaque is your source for credible information. Be well armed.