American College of Physicians Rejects “Heart Screening in Adults at Low Risk”

Heart screeningI am often asked by potential new patients, “What do you consider a complete annual checkup?” When I tell them it is a detailed history session reviewing their personal medical history and family history followed by a comprehensive medical physical examination they inquire about testing. We generally perform a urinalysis and a blood panel measuring things such as the blood sugar, the cholesterol and lipid profile, kidney and liver function plus thyroid function. In addition to that we personalize the testing based on the information presented by the patient during the history session and exam. Despite having few risk factors for the development of heart disease, peripheral arterial vascular disease or cerebrovascular disease they ask how often they can have a nuclear stress test, an echocardiogram and imaging of their hearts and blood vessels. When I tell them they probably do not need such testing they tell me about their highly fit and athletic friend with no symptoms who just had a stress test and ended up with a three vessel coronary bypass procedure “saving“ their life.

An article in the Annals of Internal Medicine the American College of Physicians (ACP) supported that position saying that individuals with a Framingham cardiovascular risk assessment of <10% over the next 10 years should not be tested. “These recommendations are based on the lack of evidence showing that screening improves clinical outcomes.” They went on to say that screening has unclear effects on risk reclassification and the use of risk reducing therapies and noted that while abnormalities discovered via resting or exercise EKG were associated with an increased risk of subsequent cardiovascular events, they had no effect on clinical outcomes. According to the authors, “even if a cardiac abnormality is uncovered via screening, the most effective treatment may be adjustments in diet, exercise and other modifiable CHD risk factors that would be recommended regardless of screening results.”

I am frequently asked about the health conscious individual who had the testing and was found surprisingly to have critical disease requiring a lifesaving procedure. The ACP cited a thorough Coronary Artery Surgery Study in which cardiac catheterization on patients with “nonspecific“ or unclear chest pain revealed atherosclerosis in 40% of men and 24% of women, but only 3% of men and 0.6% of women had severe enough disease to benefit from a revascularization procedure.

The ACP paper cited the harm done by screening low risk individuals including excessive radiation exposure and the cost and morbidity of doing additional testing and or procedures to follow up false positive test results. The group stated that a nuclear stress test exposed an individual to an effective radiation dose that is twice the dose of an abdominal CT scan (15.6 mSV) which is the equivalent of ten years’ worth of chest x-ray irradiation. They also projected an increased risk of 2 -25 cancer cases per 10,000 nuclear medicine stress tests in people age 50 or older.

What is clear from the ACP recommendations is that the decision to perform cardiovascular screening should be based on the personal and individual patient history and physical exam findings which indicate a significant possibility of their being cardiac or vascular disease. If in fact the risk is low then testing for the sake of wanting to know causes more problems than solutions.

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