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Blowup at Milwaukee Heart Scan

Posted Mar 25 2009 3:12pm
A local TV investigative news report just ran a critical report of the goings-on at Milwaukee Heart Scan:

Andy Smith went to Milwaukee Heart Scan. "It passed the smell test like a road kill skunk. I mean it was bad," Smith explained.

Our hidden cameras went inside the high pressure sales pitch. "On a good day I sell eight, nine, 10 people. On a bad day probably three," sales manager Angelo Callegari told us.

What the heck happened?

Let me tell you a story.

Back in 1996, I learned of a new technology called UltraFast CT scanning, or electron-beam tomography (EBT), a variation on the standard CT technology that permitted very rapid scanning, sufficiently rapid to allow visualization of the coronary arteries. Back then, only a few dozen devices had been established nationwide.

But the technology was so promising and the initial data so powerful that I lobbied several hospital systems in town to consider purchasing one of the $1.8 million devices. I was interested in applying this exciting technology for early detection of coronary heart disease in Milwaukee. While administrators from several hospitals listened, they quickly lost interest when they figured out that the scanner was primarily a tool for prevention, and would not be directly useful to increase revenue-generating hospital procedures.

I floundered about for a year, trying to drum up support for obtaining a scanner. The manufacturer of the device, Imatron, put me in touch with a couple from Indiana who were also interested in setting up a scanner and had actually obtained the investment capital to do it. We met and, over the next year, got Milwaukee Heart Scan up and running. I served as Medical Director (but never an investor or owner).

Milwaukee Heart Scan was busy from day one, performing EBT heart scans, as well as CT coronary angiograms as long ago as the late 1990s, virtual colonoscopies, and other imaging tests. We all spent a great deal of time educating the public and physicians on what this technology meant for detection and prevention of disease.

Despite the public's perception that the owners, Nancy and Steve Burlingame, were making a bundle of money, in reality they could barely pay their expenses. As price competition heated up in Milwaukee with the lower-cost competing multidetector scanners cropping up, the Burlingames often did not pay themselves.

My interest was to keep this device afloat. I therefore told the Burlingames that they should pay their bills first--their staff, overhead, the scanner costs, and pay themselves--and not worry about reimbursing me for the (very modest) heart scan interpretation fees. For several years, I read thousands of scans without any compensation. But that was okay with me--I just wanted to be sure this device remained available.

But in 2008, some business people from Chicago contacted Steve Burlingame with prospects of applying a contract model of long-term scanning to patients,i.e.,getting people to sign a several-year contract for discounted imaging. They proposed that Milwaukee Heart Scan offer heart scans for free to get people in the door.

What was peculiar about all this is that none of the four physicians on staff at Milwaukee Heart Scan had any knowledge of these discussions at all, including myself. Personally, I figured something was afoot when I came in to read scans in the summer of 2008. While, ordinarily, there is a single stack of scans to read from the preceding few days, this time there were numerous stacks of scans, hundreds of scans in all. Not a word had been said to me or my colleagues. I quickly figured out (thanks to the staff filling me in) that they had been offering scans for free. Not surprisingly, many people took them up on the offer.

Up until then, I had been readily willing to read heart scans without compensation, provided I could perform scan readings in a modest time commitment every week on the weeks it was my responsibility. But work several hours every day for free? Impossible.

My colleagues and I were deeply upset and concerned and insisted on a meeting with all the people involved, including the Burlingames, who had engineered this new sales program. We expressed serious reservations about what they were doing and insisted that they dramatically scale back the promises being made to people. I personally asked that they fire several of the people they had hired as sales people, given what we thought was unprofessional appearance and behavior.

The Burlingames and their new business partners essentially thumbed their noses at the physicians and ignored our advice. So, of the four physicians (one radiologist, three cardiologists), three of us resigned. (The one remaining cardiologist, I believe, didn't really understand what was going on.)

Apparently, after we left, the hard sales tactics continued. The news media got hold of the story through some understandably disgruntled people, and you know the rest.

The tragedy in all this is that, as wonderful as heart scans are, they don't make money for the people who invest in the technology. In the sad case of Milwaukee Heart Scan, it meant that my former friends, the Burlingames, turned to questionable tactics to make this technology pay.

Make no mistake: Heart scans remain a wonderful medical imaging modality. EBT, in particular, remains a fabulous technology that would--even today--remain the pre-eminent means to image coronary arteries, except that GE (who acquired Imatron some years ago) decided that a more direct path to bigger revenues was to purchase Imatron, then promptly scrap the entire operation, choosing to focus on multidetector technology exclusively.

Don't let the spotty past and petty ambitions cloud the fact that heart scans remain the best way to identify and track coronary plaque. Just don't get tempted by the offer of any free scans "without obligation."
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