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The dark side of CT heart scans

Posted Oct 01 2008 8:26pm

"I just got a heart scan!" declared Eric to his doctor. He handed the report to him.

"Oh my. Your score is 154." The doctor paused, then looked at Eric with a serious look on his face. "If we're going to understand whether or not you're in danger, you'll need a heart catheterization."


I've seen this happen countless times. How can I say this diplomatically? THIS IS WRONG!! In my view, it's absolutely criminal for this to happen. Physician ignorance, profiteering, whatever--it is wrong.

There's very few reasons why someone who has no symptoms should go directly to the cath lab for a procedure. (A rare exception might be an exceptional quantity of plaque in the left mainstem artery, e.g., >100. This is highly unusual.)

Even a nuclear stress test (e.g., thallium) at this level of scoring is only 10-15% likely to be abnormal. That means 85-90% likelihood of being normal. There's rare reasons to perform a heart catheterization in a person with no symptoms and an entirely normal stress test. The vast majority of people like Eric do not need a heart catheterization to discern risk.

If Eric's doctor had been up-to-date on the published literature on the prognostic value of heart scans, he could have advised Eric what the risks were--without a catheterization. Many doctors simply don't want to be bothered. Or, they opt for the more profitable method--a hospital procedure.

Always discuss your heart scan with your doctor--but be armed with information in case your doctor is uninformed or unscrupulous. Unfortunately, that's not uncommon. The Track Your Plaque program is your advocate, a source for unbiased information.

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