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Dr. Bernadine Healy on heart scans

Posted Aug 04 2008 4:08pm


A Heart Scan Blog reader brought the following tidbit to my attention.



Cardiologist and now writer for U.S. News and World Report, Dr. Bernadine Healy, wrote thiseditorial, a glowing endorsement of heart scans:



The approach is beautifully simple. Calcium accumulates in advanced plaques, so calcium visible in the heart's arteries indicates atherosclerosis. An exploding number of studies in the past few years have unequivocally shown that the calcium score predicts both heart attack and sudden death. As a generalization, patients with scores between 100 and 400 face three to four times the risk of a heart attack or death compared with others at the same age with a zero score. Over 400, that elevated risk more than doubles.



Most doctors rely instead on the Framingham calculator, which estimates a symptom-free person's risk of a heart attack in the next 10 years based on smoking history, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, sex, and age. It's available free online from the National Institutes of Health. Most people taking the test will have minimal or no coronary disease, though risk estimates over 9 percent should inspire vigorous preventive efforts. For some, however, coronary heart disease is sneaky, and Framingham will underestimate what lies ahead. Roughly half of those who suffer a major heart attack or sudden coronary death are symptom free. Calcium scores are additive to Framingham; they pick up the individual surprises by using X-ray vision to look inside the heart. No wonder insurance companies are scrambling to use coronary calcium scores—life insurers, that is.






Dr. Bernadine Healy is no small-time player. In addition to her academic credentials, she is former chief of the National Institutes of Health (the first woman to hold the influential post), former head of the American Red Cross, and former deputy director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Reagan administration. An endorsement of CT heart scans, though written under the guise of a probing editorial, will do an enormous amount of good to overcome the hurdles in gaining wider acceptance of heart scans.



Those of us applying heart scans in everyday practice have long appreciated their enormous power to detect and track coronary plaque. Framingham scoring can't even touch the certainty and quantification provided by heart scans in day-to-day life. Hundreds of studies have validated their use, but they still suffer from lying in the shadows of the procedural bullies aiming to boost the number of heart catheterizations, angioplasties, stents, bypass surgeries.



Dr. Healy, a voice with great weight, not just a political figure but also a cardiologist and scientist, has done a great service to broadcast the message of heart scanning.
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