The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Heart scans: "We don't believe in heart scans"

Tim's CT heart scan score was an earth-shattering 3,447, clearly in the upper stratosphere of percentile rank. Risk of heart attack: 25% per year. At age 58, it was a wonder that nothing had happened yet.

Tim went to the Cleveland Clinic for an opinion, long a powerful bastion of heart procedures. The consulting cardiologist told Tim, "We don't believe in heart scans. They're wrong too often."

An opinion from a widely-respected cardiovascular center. If they don't "believe" in heart scans, does that mean they "believe" in stents and bypass surgery? Does it mean that the thousands of research studies that have now been published on the value of heart scanning are pure fiction? Is there a choice to believe or not believe?

I continue to be shocked at the extraordinary ignorance on the topic of heart scanning among my colleagues. The number one killer of Americans and you still rely on stress tests?

Why this perception that heart scans are "wrong too often"? What this cardiologist means, I believe, is that when people are taken to the cath lab for catheterization, a substantial number of those with positive heart scan scores don't have "blockage". But I could have told him that even before the heart catheterization.

There is an expected and well-documented likelihood of finding significant "blockage" based on your heart scan score. At Tim's scary score of 3,447, what is the likelihood of "blockage" of 50% or more? It's around 40-50%. That means that half the people at this score will have a blockage sufficient to justify inserting stents or undergoing bypass surgery, half will not. There will indeed be many plaques, but none severe enough to block flow.

Does that make the heart scan wrong ? I don't think it does. Just because you don't need a major procedure to "fix" blockages does not mean that no heart disease is present. Without preventive efforts, Tim's heart attack risk remains an alarming 25% per year--whether or not he gets stents or bypass. The only treatments that substantially reduce this risk (in an asymptomatic person) are preventive efforts, not procedures.

Yet cardiologists like the one Tim consulted at the Cleveland Clinic regard heart scans as something "he doesn't believe in". I would suggest a return to the textbooks and published literature and re-thinking how heart disease should be managed.

Heart scans should provide an opportunity for prevention , not an opportunity for profit.