The Nation's Health + power

Heart scans: Money, money, money, money

I've been asked the question numerous times:

Why aren't heart scans more popular?

First, let me qualify by saying that heart scan have indeed grown in popularity over the past decade. I think the real question is:

Given the enormous usefulness of CT heart scanning to detect hidden, asymptomatic coronary atherosclerotic plaque, why haven't they more readily been incorporated into conventional medical practice?

That's easy: There's no money in it.

Say, for instance, your doctor orders a heart scan and somehow receives a $1000 for the test. Scan centers would be scanning 100 people a day, falling over themselves to do scans.

This would be similar to a heart catheterization. Order a catheterization, do 30 minutes of work, and get $1000. Or, order a nuclear stress test. Depending on how its done and where, $1800-4000 is paid by the insurer.

Order a CT heart scan and how much is paid to the doctor? Usually nothing . At most, a nominal fee might be paid if the doctor reads the scan.

With heart scans, there simply is no big payoff.

We learned the implications of this situation 10 years ago when I was trying to help my friend, Steve Burlingame, the owner of Milwaukee Heart Scan. (I am NOT and NEVER WAS an owner.) Steve was trying to let everybody know about this great new $2 million dollar heart scan device in the Milwaukee area.

The first few years were tough for Steve: Carrying the substantial expense of this device while doctors essentially gave the technology the cold shoulder. It simply did not fit into the financial equation. Why change the way things were, particularly when there was virtually no financial reason to do so? To counter this, Milwaukee Heart Scan followed the model many other scan centers have followed and marketed directly to the public.

I see this as yet another example of why people need to take control of health care away from doctors and hospitals, the current controllers of the system who are providing a disservice to the public they are supposed to be serving. These institutions, for the most part, serve their self-serving financial interests, not your health interests. It's the same equation that drives food manufacturers to make more and more processed carbohydrate foods that they sell for substantial markups, not green peppers and cucumbers that make little money.

I regard heart scans as among the greatest self-empowering tools in health ever conceived. It was that way in 1997; it remains that way in 2007.

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