The Nation's Health + [Heart scans]

Heart scans: Panic in the streets

Several days ago, I wrote about a local prominent judge in my neighborhood who was unexpectedly found dead in bed of a heart attack at age 49.

As expected, I've received multiple calls from patients and physicians who want heart catheterizations. For instance, an internist I know called me in a panic. He asked that I perform a heart catheterization in a patient with a heart scan score of 768. I've been seeing this patient for about a year. He's without symptoms, even with strenuous exercise; stress tests (i.e., tests of coronary bloow flow) have been normal.

I remind patients and colleagues every day, day in day out: Having a heart scan score revealing some measure of coronary plaque is not a sufficient reason by itself to proceed with procedures. Fear of suffering a fate like the unfortunate judge is also not a reason to proceed with procedures.

Increased awareness of the gravity of heart disease is a good thing. Some good can come out of a needless tragedy like this. The lesson from the judge's unfortunate experience: he needed a CT heart scan. I'm told that the judge's doctor advised him that a heart scan was a waste of time. I hope that appropriate legal action for negligence is taken by the judge's family against this physician.

Not doing a heart scan is wrong. That's the lesson to learn. The lesson is not that everybody with coronary plaque needs a procedure. Had the judge undergone a simple heart scan, intensified prevention could have been instituted and he'd still be alive with his wife and children today.

The indications for procedures are unchanged by your heart scan. If a stress test is abnormal and indicates poor flow to a part of the heart, that would be a reason. If symptoms like chest discomfort or breathlessness appear, that's an indication. If there's evidence of poor heart muscle contraction, that's a reason to proceed with a procedure. But just having coronary plaque is not a sufficient reason.