Category Archives: Cardiac Tests

“Should You Get A Routine Annual Electrocardiogram?”, Revisited

Four years ago the skeptical cardiologist wrote a post which outlined the reasons why most people should avoid getting a routine annual electrocardiogram.

I pointed out that

If you …feel fine (meaning without symptoms or asymptomatic), exercise regularly, have never had heart problems,  and have a pulse between 60 and 90, the value of the routine annual ECG is very questionable. In fact, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPFTF)

“recommends against screening with resting or exercise electrocardiography (ECG) for the prediction of coronary heart disease (CHD) events in asymptomatic adults at low risk for CHD events”

(for asymptomatic adults at intermediate or high risk for CHD they deem the evidence insufficient). The USPSTF feels that that the evidence only supports an annual BP screen along with measurement of weight and a PAP smear.

Yesterday, the USPSTF published an updated analysis which confirmed this recommendation:

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends against preventative screening with resting or exercise electrocardiography (ECG) in asymptomatic adults at low risk of cardiovascular disease events in an updated recommendation statement published June 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

I should point out that I still believe (although some would disagree) screening for atrial fibrillation with methods other than a 12-lead ECG (including taking the pulse or checking a single lead ECG with a Kardia device) is worthwhile.

Below, I’ve reposted relevant sections of my 2014 post which emphasizes the problem of false positives and false negatives which are quite frequent with any screening test but are particularly worrisome with the routine 12-lead ECG.

 


To many, this seems counter-intuitive: how can a totally benign test that has the potential to detect early heart disease or abnormal rhythms not be beneficial?

There is a growing movement calling for restraint and careful analysis of the value of all testing that is done in medicine. Screening tests, in particular are coming under scrutiny.
Even the annual mammogram, considered by most to be an essential tool in the fight against breast cancer, is now being questioned.

My former cardiology partner, Dr. John Mandrola, who writes the excellent blog at http://www.drjohnm.org, has started an excellent discussion of a recent paper that shows no reduction of mortality with the annual mammogram. He looks at the topic in the context of patient/doctor perception that “doing something” is always better than doing nothing, and the problem of “over-testing.”

In my field of cardiology there is much testing done. It ranges from the (seemingly) benign and (relatively) inexpensive electrocardiogram to the invasive and potentially deadly cardiac catheterization. For the most part, if patients don’t have to pay too much, they won’t question the indication for the tests we cardiologists order. After all, they want to do as much as possible to prevent themselves  from dropping dead from a heart attack and they reason that the more testing that is done, the better, in that regard.

The Problem of False Positives and False Negatives

But all testing has the potential for adverse consequences because of the problem of false positives and negatives. To give just one example: ECGs in people with totally normal hearts are regularly interpreted as showing a prior heart attack. This is a false positive. The test is positive (abnormal) but the person does not have the disease.

12 lead ECG routinely performed prior to surgery and interpreted by computer as ASMI or anteroseptal myocardial infarction ( heart attack).Patient with totally normal heart. Often such false positives are due to poor placement of the ECG leads

False positives lead to unnecessary worry, anxiety, and testing. More testing is highly likely to be ordered; specifically, a stress test. Stress tests in low risk, asymptomatic individuals often result in false positive results. After a false positive stress test, it is highly likely that a catheterization will be ordered. This test carries potential risks of kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and death. It is bad enough that the cascade of testing initiated by an abnormal, false positive,  screening test results in unnecessary radiation, expense and bother but  in some cases it end up killing patients rather than saving lives.

On the other end of the spectrum is the false negative ECG. Most of my patients believe that if their ECG is normal then their heart is OK. Unfortunately the ECG is very insensitive to cardiac problems that are not related to the rhythm of the heart or an acute heart attack.

Patients who have 90% blockage of all 3 of their major coronary arteries and are at high risk for heart attack often have a totally normal ECG. This is a false negative. The patient has the disease (coronary artery disease), but the test is normal. In this situation the patient may be falsely reassured that everything is fine with their heart. The next day when they start experiencing chest pain from an acute heart attack, they may dismiss it as heart burn instead of going to the ER.

More and more, screening tests like the ECG and the mammogram  are rightfully being questioned by patients and payers. For a more extensive discussion about which tests in medicine are appropriate check out the American Board of Internal Medicine’s http://www.choosingwisely.org.

Keep in mind: not uncommonly,  doing more testing can result in worse outcomes than doing less.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

h/t Jerry , the life coach of the skeptical cardiologist , who originally posed this question to me.

 

The Skeptical Cardiologist Answers Good Questions: Retesting For Symptomatic Benign PVCs?

One of the many things I enjoy about writing this blog is the interesting comments and questions that readers post. Many of them stimulate me to better answer and inform my patients.

Here’s one such question (about premature ventricular contractions):

Wondering your opinion on retesting. I’ve had PVCs since I was 15 (63 now) and they have come and gone over the years, attributed to hormones, low potassium, stress, and dehydration/bad diet. Recently they started again and are driving me insane and none of the usual fixes are working. Two ER visits with normal EKGs and my cardiologist all say no worries. I’m thinking maybe I should have another ultrasound, buy MD doesn’t think it’s necessary. I had a perfectly normal cath in 2015 but no tests since. Your thoughts? Thank you.

This was the response I typed off the top of my head:

Good question. I consider retesting for patients who have not had documentation of “structurally normal heart” for some time and who have a significant change in their symptoms. You would qualify since no testing in 3 years and worsened symptoms.
Typically I would order a stress echocardiogram which allows a reassessment of both LV structure and function and for any blockage in the coronary arteries and I would consider some kind of monitor-a 24 hour Holter would be fine if you are having daily symptoms.
You might also consider acquiring an AliveCor device to monitor your rhythm with symptoms. I’ve written a lot about this elsewhere on this site. Unfortunately AliveCor does not identify PVCs but if you connect via KardiaPro with your physician your recordings can be viewed and interpreted by him/her.

The answer reflects my clinical practice, which is based on 30 years of experience taking care of patients with PVCs, in conjunction with regularly reading papers, reviews and guidelines in this area.

Periodically, both for specific patient problems and for blog questions, I will search the medical/scientific literature and review guideline publications to see if there is any new information that I am unaware of to ensure that my recommendations are scientifically grounded.

In this case, a more prolonged search of the literature did not yield precise guidance on the frequency of retesting of patients with benign PVCs.

This 2014 guideline comments briefly on the evaluation and treatment of PVCs without structural heart disease (SHD):

In the absence of SHD, the most common indication for treating PVCs remains the presence of symptoms that are not improved by explanation of their benign nature and reassurance from the physician.

In addition, some patients may require treatment for frequent asymptomatic PVCs if longitudinal imaging surveillance reveals an interval decline in LV systolic function or an increase in chamber volume.

For patients with  >10,000 PVCs/24 h, follow-up with repeat echocardiography and Holter monitoring should be considered.

In patients with fewer PVCs, further investigation is only necessary should symptoms increase.

It should also be recognized that PVC burden often fluctuates over time.

This initial testing approach corresponds closely to what I wrote in my post on benign PVCs here.

Retesting with echocardiography and Holter monitoring is advised for those few patients who have lots of PVCs, but the frequency of this retesting is not specified and cardiologists have to use their best judgement, balancing the cost (to patient and to society) and patient safety.  Most cardiologists will err on the side of more frequent repeat testing for a variety of reasons.

Personally, I will advise an annual echocardiogram to such patients since they are at a higher risk of developing a cardiomyopathy.

In the absence of really frequent PVCs (>10,000 per 24 hours is a nice round number, but the precise cut-off is debatable), we should probably only repeat testing if the patient recognizes a significant change in their symptoms.

The reader clearly fits into that category, and retesting in her will provide reassurance that all is still good with her heart. This, in turn, should help with managing symptoms and preventing recurrent ER visits.

The final question (and the toughest) that we could pose related to retesting is “What is the time interval that one should wait before retesting in a patient with worsened symptoms?”

For example, if the reader had a normal echocardiogram 6 months ago should we repeat it when symptoms worsen? My reflex answer would be no, but at some time interval depending on the individual characteristics of the case-patient risks for heart disease, patient anxiety levels, patient symptom severity and frequency, the answer would become yes.

Cardiologists have to answer dozens of questions like this daily.  There is no science to inform a precise answer, consequently the answers will vary wildly from one cardiologist to another depending on a variety of factors specific to the cardiologist.

Those cardiologist-specific factors are complex and sometimes controversial. Part of this makes up the art of medicine and part reflects the business of medicine. They are definitely worthy of another post when time permits.

Questioningly Yours,

-ACP

N.B. The Eternal Fiancee’ (my layperson surrogate) expressed surprise that one could have 10 000 PVCs per day. I told her that if your heart beats roughly once per second (6o beats per minute) since there are  60 x 60 x 24 = 86400 seconds in a day, your heart beats almost 90 000 times in 24 hours.

Thus, roughly  1 in 9 beats is a PVC.

AliveCor Mobile ECG : Ways To Minimize Low Voltage and Unclassified Recordings

Sometimes AliveCor’s Mobile ECG device yields unclassified interpretations of recordings. Understandably if you want to know whether your rhythm is normal or atrial fibrillation, the unclassified  classification can be very frustrating.

There are various caues of an unclassified tracing with different solutions.  Some unclassified recordings are due to a heart rate over 100 BPM or under 50 BPM and cannot be fixed. Similarly, some patients with ectopic beats like PVCS may consistently generate unclassified interpretations (see my discussion here).

Artifacts induced by poor recording techniques are common as a cause and almost always can be fixed.

These can be reduced by minimizing motion, extraneous noise, and maximizing contact with the electrodes.  Follow all the steps AliveCor lists here.

For me, the following step is crucial

  • If your fingers are dry, try moistening them with antibacterial wipes or a bit of lotion

And be aware the device needs to be near the microphone of your iPad or smartphone.

Low Voltage As Cause of Unclassified Kardia Recordings

Another cause of unclassified interpretations is a low voltage recording (which I initially discussed here.).

At the recent ACC meeting I asked Alivecor inventor and CEO David  Albert if he had any solutions to offer for those who obtain unclassified low voltage AliveCor tracings.

He told me that the cause is often a vertically oriented heart and that recording using the lead II technique can often solve the problem.

Lead II involves putting one electrode on your left knee and one your right fingers as described in this video:

Reader “J”  recently sent me a series of Kardia ECG recordings,  some of which were unclassified , some normal and one read as possible atrial fibrillation.

The unclassified and possible AF tracings looked like this:

 

They were very regular with a rate between 80 and 100 BPM but they totally lacked p waves. It was not clear to me what the rhythm was on these tracings.

Other tracings had lowish voltage but the p waves were  clearly visible  and Kardia easily classified them as normal

Lowish voltage with p waves (Type B)

 

Good QRS voltage with clear p waves ( Type B

 

Still others had improved QRS voltage with clear p waves and were also classified  appropriately as normal

 

After some back and forth emails we discovered that the ECG recordings with no p waves were always  made using the chest lead recording.   AliveCor-describes this as follows:

  • For an Anterior Precordial Lead, the device can be placed on the lower left side of the chest, just below the pectoral muscle. The bottom of the smartphone or tablet should be pointing towards the center of the body.

Mystery solved!

There is an abnormal cardiac rhythm that is regular between 80 and 100 BPM with no p waves and normal QRS called junctional tachycardia but in J’s case the absent p waves are related to the recording site.

Also, note that for this young woman the lead II voltage (Type B tracing) is much higher than the standard, lead I voltage (type A tracing).

Lead II With Pants On

After Dr. Albert told me of the advantages of Lead II I responded that it seemed somewhat awkward to take one’s pants off in order to make an ECG recording.

He immediately reached in his suit pocket and pulled out a pen-shaped device and began spraying a liquid on his left knee.

To my surprise he was able to make a perfect Lead II recording without taking his pants off!

Lessons learned from reader J and Dr. A:

  • Consider trying different leads if the standard Lead I (left hand, right hand) is consistently yielding unclassified ECG recordings
  • Try Lead II (left knee, right hand) to improve voltage and recording quality
  • You can record off your knee even with your pants on if you are prepared to spray liquids on your pants

Pantsonically Yours,

-ACP

What Should Your Maximal Exercise Heart Rate Be?: The Importance Of Using The Right Age-Predicted HRmax Formula

A reader who runs 5Ks posted a question recently which indicated concern that his heart rate during intense exercise was much higher than his age-predicted heart rate.  He writes

I’m 65, exhaustion HRmax is 188, HRave for 5k is usually 152-154 and interval HRmax is usually 175-179 depending on how hard I push”

He wondered if he should be concerned about being a “high-beater.”

This prompted the skeptical cardiologist to examine the literature on age-predicted maximal heart rate which led to the shocking discovery that the wrong formula is being utilized by most exercise trainers and hospitals.

First , some background.

The peak heart rate achieved with maximal exertion or HRmax has long been known to decline with aging for reasons that are unclear.

The HR achieved with exercise divided by the HRmax x 100 (percentage HRmax) is widely used in clinical medicine and physiology as a basis for prescribing exercise intensity in cardiac rehab programs, disease prevention programs and fitness clinics.

During stress tests we seek to have patients exercise at least until  their heart rate gets to at 85% of HRmax.

The Traditional Formula For HRmax

The formula that is widely used for HRmax is

HRmax = 220-age

It appears to have originated from flawed studies in the early 1970s. These studies included subjects with cardiovascular disease, smokers and patients on cardiac medications.

The Improved HRmax Formula

Tanaka, et al in 2001 performed a meta-analysis of previous data on HRmax along with accumulating data in their own lab. This was the first study to examine healthy, unmedicated, nonsmokers. In addition each subject achieved a verified maximal level of effort as documented by metabolic stress testing.

Their analysis obtained the regression equation (which I term the Tanaka equation)

HRmax = 208-(0.7 x age) 

Below is the graph of the laboratory measurements from which the regression equation was obtained.

Relation between maximal heart rate (HRmax) and age obtained from the prospective, laboratory-based study.(Tanaka, et al)

This graph shows how  inaccurate the traditional equation is, especially in older  individuals like my reader:

Regression lines depicting the relation between maximal heart rate (HRmax) and age obtained from the results derived from our equation (208 − 0.7 × age) (solid linewith 95% confidence interval), as compared with the results derived from the traditional 220 − age equation (dashed line). Maximal heart rates predicted by traditional and current equations, as well as the differences between the two equations, are shown in the table format at the top.(from Tanaka, et al)

The traditional equation in comparison to the Tanaka equation  overestimates HRmaxin young adults, intersects with the present equation at age 40 years and then increasingly underestimates HRmaxwith further increases in age. For example, at age 70 years, the difference between the two equations is ∼10 beats/min. Considering the wide range of individual subject values around the regression line for HRmax(SD ∼10 beats/min), the underestimation of HRmaxcould be >20 beats/min for some older adults.

There are likely lots of perfectly healthy individuals in their sixties and seventies then who have heart rates at maximal exertion that exceed by 10 to 20 beats per minute the HR max predicted by the traditional formula.

This is due to a combination of the inaccuracy of the traditional formula and the wide variation in normal HR max at any given age (standard deviation (SD) of approximately 10 beats/min.)

Thus, my reader at age 65 would have a HRmax predicted by the Tanaka equation as

208-0.7 x 65=162

If we allow for a 10 BPM range of normality above and below 162 BPM we reach 172 BPM which gets close to  but doesn’t reach the reader’s 188 BPM.

If you examine the scatterplot of the Tanaka data you can see that several of the points for age 65 reach into the 180s so chances are my reader is still within normal limits

The Bottom Line on HRmax

The widely used traditional formula for predicting HR max is inaccurate.

Athletes, trainers, physicians and hospitals should switch to using the superior Tanaka HR max formula.

Individuals should keep in mind that there is a wide range of HR response to exercise in normals and variations of 10 BPM above and below the predicted response are common and of no concern.

Chronotropically Yours

-ACP

Addendum. The 220-age formula is so heavily etched into my brain that I used 220 instead of 208 when I initially calculated the predicted max HR for my reader. this has been corrected.Thanks to Chris Sivewright for pointing this out.

Can AliveCor’s Mobile ECG Device Combined With Its Kardia Pro Cloud-Based Platform Replace Standard Long Term Rhythm Monitors?

In March of 2017 AliveCor introduced Kardia Pro, a cloud-based software platform that allows physicians to monitor patients who use the Kardia mobile ECG device.

I have been utilizing the Kardia mobile ECG  device since 2013 with many of my atrial fibrillation (AF)  patients and have  found it be very useful as a personal intermittent long term cardiac monitor. (see here and here)

I signed up for the Kardia Pro service about 3 months ago and all of my patients who purchased Kardia devices prior to March of 2017 have been migrated automatically to Kardia Pro by AliveCor.

Now (post March 2017),  patients who acquire a Kardia device must sign up for the Kardia Pro service at $15 per month to connect with a  physician.

I think this is money well spent and I’ll demonstrate how the service works with a few examples.

Monitoring Patients With Atrial Fibrillation

 I saw a 68 year old man with persistent atrial fibrillation that was first diagnosed at the time of pneumonia in late 2017.

He underwent a cardioversion after recovering from the pneumonia but quickly reverted back to AF. His prior cardiologist offered him the option of repeat cardioversion and long term flecainide therapy for maintenance of normal sinus rhythm (NSR) but he declined.

When I saw him for the first time in the office  a  month ago I  listened to his heart and to my surprise, noted a regular rhythm: an AliveCor recording in the office confirmed he was in NSR. The patient had been unaware of when he was in or out of rhythm

We discussed methods for monitoring his rhythm at this point which include a 24 Holter monitor, a 7 to 14 day Long Term Monitor, a Cardiac Event Monitor and a Mobile Cardiac Outpatient Telemetry device. These devices are helpful and although expensive are often covered by insurance.  They require wearing electrodes or a patch continuously and the results are not immediately available.

I also offered him the option of monitoring his AF using a Kardia device with the recordings connected to me by Kardia Pro.

He purchased the device on his own for $99, downloaded the app for his smartphone and began making recordings.

I enrolled him in my Kardia Pro account and he received an email invitation with a code that he entered which connected his account with mine, allowing me to view all of his recordings as they were made.

When I log into my Kardia Pro account I can now view a graphic display of the recordings he has made with color coding of whether they were considered normal or abnormal by Kardia.

The patient overview page also displays BP information if the patient is utilizing certain Omron devices which work with Kardia.

kardia pro wc monthly

The display shows that after our office visit he maintained NSR for 3 days (green dots) and then intermittently had ECG recordings classified as AF (yellow dots) or unclassified (black).

The more he used the device and got feedback on when he was in or out of rhythm the more he was able to recognize symptoms that were caused by AF.

I can click on any of the dots and six second strips of the full recording are displayed.  In the example below I clicked on 2/27 which has both an unclassified recording (which is atrial flutter) and an AF recording

Clicking on the ECG strips brings up  the full 30 second recording on a page that also allows me to assign my formal  interpretation. In the example below I added atrial flutter as the diagnosis, changing it from Kardia’s unclassified (Kardia’s algorithm calls anything it cannot clearly identify as AF that is over 100 BPM as unclassified.)

The ECG can then be archived or exported for entry into an EHR.

The benefits of this patient being connected
to me are obvious: we now  have an instantaneous patient-controlled method for knowing what his cardiac rhythm is doing whether he is having symptoms or not.

This knowledge allows me to make more informed treatment decisions.

The Kardia Pro Dashboard

When I  log into kardia pro I see this screen.

dashboard karia pro It contains buttons for searching for a specific patient or adding a new patient. Adding new patients is a quick and simple process requiring input of patient demographics including  email and birthdate.

From the opening screen you can click on your triage tab. I have elected to have all non normal patient recorded ECGS go into the triage tab.

Other Examples

Another patient’s Kardia Pro page shows that he records an ECG nearly every day and most of the time Kardia documents NSR in the 60s. Overall, he has made 773 recordings and 677 of them were NSR, 28 unanalyzed (due to brevity) , 13 unclassified and 55 showing AF.

Monitoring Rate  Control  In Patients With AF and Reversion Post-Cardioversion

Another patient I saw for the first time recently has had long-standing persistent AF.  His previous cardiologist performed an electrical cardioversion a year ago but the patient reverted back to AF in 40 hours.   Before seeing me he had purchased a Kardia mobile ECG device and was using it  to monitor his heart rate.

After he accepted my email invitation to connect via Kardia Pro I was able to see his rhythm and rate daily. The Kardia Pro chart belowshows his daily heart rate while in atrial fibrillation. We utilized this to guide titration of his rate controlling medications.  Such precise remote monitoring of heart rate in AF (which is often difficult to accurately assess by standard heart rate devices) obviates the need for office visits for 12 lead ECGs or periodic Holter monitors.

I performed a  second cardioversion on him after which he made  daily recordings documenting maintenance of NSR. With this system we can determine exactly when AF returns, information which will be very helpful in determining future treatment options.

Kardia Pro Plus Kardia Mobile ECG Creates Personal Intermittent Long Term Rhythm Monitor

There are many potential applications of the Kardia ECG device beyond AF monitoring (assessing palpitations, PVCs, tachycardia, etc.) but they are all enhanced when the device is combined with a good cardiologist connected to the device by Kardia Pro.

I’ve gotten spoiled by the information I get from my AF patients who are on  Kardia Pro now. When they call the office with palpitations or a sense of being out of rhythm I can determine within a minute what their rhythm is wherever I am (excluding tropical beaches and mountain tops)  or wherever the patient is (for the most part.)

On the other hand patients who are not on Kardia Pro have to come into the office for  12-lead ECGs. When they call I feel like my diagnostic tools are limited. Such patients usually end up getting one of the standard Long Term Monitoring (LTM) Devices. If I am fortunate, after a  few days to weeks , the results of the LTM will be faxed to my office.

I am optimistic based on this early experience with Kardia Pro that ultimately this service in conjunction with the Kardia Mobile ECG device (or similar products) will replace many of the more expensive and inconvenient long term monitoring devices that cardiologists currently use.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

Donald Trump Has Moderate Coronary Plaque: This Is Normal For His Age And We Already Knew It

In October, 2016 the skeptical cardiologist predicted that Donald Trump’s coronary calcium score, if remeasured, would be >100 .  At that time I pointed out that this score is consistent with moderate coronary plaque build up and implies a moderate risk of heart attack and stroke.

Trumps’ score gave him a seven-fold increase risk of a cardiovascular event in comparison to Hilary Clinton (who had a zero coronary calcium score) .

Yesterday it was revealed by the White House doctor , Ronny Jackson, that Trump’s repeat score  was 133.

I was able to predict this score because we knew that Trump’s coronary calcium was 98 in 2013 and that on average calcium scores increase by about 10% per year.

I pointed out that his previous  score was average for white men his age and his repeat score is also similar to the average white male of 71 years.

Entering Trump’s numbers into the MESA coronary calculator shows us he is at the 46th percentile, meaning that 46% of white men his age have less calcium.We can also calculate Trump’s 10 year risk of heart attack and stroke using the app from the ACC (the ASCVD calculator) and entering in the following information obtained from the White House press briefing:

Total Cholesterol          223

LDL Cholesterol            143

HDL Cholesterol              67

Systolic Blood Pressure 122

Never Smoked Cigarettes

Taking aspirin 81 mg and rosuvastatin (Crestor) 10 mg.

His 10 year risk of heart attack or stroke is 16.7%.

Given that his calcium score is average it doesn’t change his predicted risk and the conclusion is that his risk is identical to the average 71 year old white man-moderate.

We also know that Trump had an exercise stress echocardiogram which was totally normal and therefore can be reasonably certain that the moderate plaque build up in his arteries is not restricting the blood flow to his heart.

Here is what Dr. Jackson said about the stress echo:

He had an exercise stress echocardiogram done, which demonstrated above-average exercise capacity based on age and sex, and a normal heart rate, blood pressure, and cardiac output response to exercise.  He had no evidence of ischemia, and his wall motion was normal in all images. the stress echo:

The New York Times article on this issue, entitled “Trump’s Physical Revealed Serious Heart Concerns, Outside Experts Say”  however, presents a dramatically worrisome and misleading narrative.

It quotes several cardiologists who were very concerned about Trump’s high LDL level, weight and diet.

It’s interesting that some of the experts quoted in the NY Times piece feel that Trump’s Crestor dose should be increased in light of the recent NY  Times piece questioning whether the elderly should take statins at all.

If we have serious concerns about Trump’s heart then we should have the same concerns about every 71 year old white man because he is totally average with regard to cardiac risk. In addition he is on a statin and on aspirin, the appropriate drugs to reduce risk.

In contrast to the average 71 year old male he has had a battery of cardiac tests which show exactly where he stands cardiac wise.

Most of these cardiac tests we would not recommend to an asymptomatic individual of any age. Jackson revealed that Trump had an EKG and an echocardiogram.

His ECG, or commonly EKG, was normal sinus rhythm with a rate of 71, had a normal axis, and no other significant findings.

He had a transthoracic echocardiogram done, which demonstrated normal left ventricular systolic function, an ejected fraction of 60 to 65 percent, normal left ventricular chamber size and wall thickness, no wall motion abnormalities, his right ventricle was normal, his atria were grossly normal, and all valves were normal.

So our President has a normal heart for a 71 year old white male. This automatically puts him at moderate risk for heart attack and stroke over the next 10 years but he is being closely monitored and appropriately treated and should do well.

Nonalarmingly Yours,

-ACP

N.B. I see that Trump’s LDL was reported previously as 93. The current LDL of 143 suggests to me that he has not been taking his Crestor.

N.B. Below is an excerpt from my prior post which explains coronary calcium

Regular readers of the skeptical cardiologist should be familiar with the coronary calcium scan or score (CAC) by now.  I’ve written about it a lot (here, here, and here) and use it frequently in my patients, advocating its use to help better assess certain  patient’s risk of sudden death and heart attacks.

coronary calcium
Image from a patient with a large amount of calcium in the widowmaker or LAD coronary artery (LAD CA).

The CAC scan utilizes computed tomography (CT)  X-rays, without the need for intravenous contrast, to generate a three-dimensional picture of the heart. Because calcium is very apparent on CT scans, and because we can visualize the arteries on the surface of the heart that supply blood to the heart (the coronary arteries), the CAC scan can detect and quantify calcium in the coronary arteries with great accuracy and reproducibility.

Calcium only develops in the coronary arteries when there is atherosclerotic plaque. The more plaque in the arteries, the more calcium. Thus, the more calcium, the more plaque and the greater the risk of heart attack and death from heart attack.

Most Echocardiograms Done In the UK Are Free But Not Read By Cardiologists

In the course of researching a previous post on the cost of an echocardiogram, the skeptical cardiologist discovered a website in the UK ((HeartScan)) that offered a “private” echo at a cost of around $400.

Subsequently,  Antoinette Kenny, the creator of HeartScan, was kind enough to answer some questions I had about echocardiography in the UK.

 

From the HeartScan website. I presume this is Dr. Kenny, herself, performing an echocardiogram on a patient.

 

First she provided me with some background on her career. (Green text below from Dr. Kenny)

As you will know from HeartScan’s website (redesign of which is almost complete and will be launched next month) I am a cardiologist in the UK. I am still a fulltime NHS (UK’s public health service) cardiologist at one of the leading heart centres in the UK, the Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne. I am Head of the Regional Echocardiography Department there providing TTE, TEE, stress echo, 3D etc. My career has also been heavily involved with the British Society of Echocardiography (BSE) which is affiliated with British Cardiovascular Society and promotes standards of practice for echocardiography in the UK including accreditation programmes for individuals and departments/private services.

Dr. Kenny is clearly well-trained and dedicated to providing high quality echocardiography.

And according to  HeartScan’s FAQs

At HeartScan you are secure in the knowledge that your Echo will be performed to the highest standards laid down by the British Society of Echocardiography. HeartScan is to date the only private provider in the UK to be awarded British Society of Echocardiography Departmental Advanced Accreditation.

Are Echos Free In The Uk?

You are correct, echocardiograms are free of charge through the NHS in the UK. However, there are waiting times involved for elective referrals and typically patients may have to wait for 6-12 weeks or longer in some geographical areas.  So some patients will chose to have their echocardiogram privately and self-fund.  Other patients are covered by health care insurance and will have their echo reimbursed by their health insurance provider

It would be unusual for someone to wait for more than 1-2 weeks for an echocardiogram in the US. I suspect the longer UK waiting time does not cause worse outcomes.

Hopefully, patients presenting with some conditions (acute heart failure  comes to mind)  are moved up in the queue.

How Does Dr. Kenny Determine What To Charge For Her Private Echocardiograms?

My services are very competitively priced and I chose this price point to be competitive with other private echo services but also add value to the patient in that the echo is reported by a cardiologist who is an echo specialist.  Other local private hospitals provide an echo privately at a higher cost (approx. £380-480 for a sonographer reported echo).

So £295 is the cost of what I believe is a very high quality echo with a high quality  report.  I guess I have tried to make private echo reported by an echocardiologist as available as I can.  Whilst we are a small clinic I do get patients who travel great distances for an echo as they tell me they trust the service (as they know it’s reported by a specialist) and find the pricing better than they can attain locally.

A Marked Difference In The Practice of Echocardiography Between In The US Compared To The UK

One of the main differences between the UK and US I think is that imaging cardiologists are very much in the minority here so that in a smaller hospital there may be no cardiologist who has echo expertise.  Therefore the Echo service is almost completely physiologist delivered.  In larger teaching hospitals over the last decade or so there has been an increased awareness of the importance of imaging and thus an increased training and appointment of imaging cardiologists.  However numbers are small in relation to the service load. For instance in my unit we perform almost 18,000 TTEs annually but there are only 1.5 Echo consultants (and we both do general cardiology also).  So the TTE service is physiologist reported with myself and my colleague running ongoing education and  QA programmes for the physiologists.  We only report a small percentage of TTE cases that are flagged up by the physiologists but we perform the TOE (TEE!) and DSE’s etc. Echo is a relatively small sub-specialty in the UK so echo cardiologists tend to know each other and lecture on each other’s teaching courses etc. But there are many hospitals with no cardiologist echo expertise.

I was amazed by this. In the US, sonographers record the examination and make measurements. In some (typically academic) centers the sonographers create a preliminary reports, however, an echo trained physician signs off on all reports.

I was curious what training and reimbursement these physiologists receive  as they doing, in essence,  what a cardiologist does in the US.

Salary and Training of Physiologists in UK

Yes, our cardiac physiologists have considerable responsibility!

Their training is changing with a programme of ” modernising scientific careers” that’s underway but I will send you on info regarding their training. In essence the previous model was to complete a university course and then train in the hospital in various disciplines. For those in cardiology they train in the cath lab, cardiac rhythm management and Echo so have a very broad base before then specialising in Echo ( or cardiac rhythm etc).

Salaries depend on experience and seniority but the salary for a cardiac physiologist who has attained BSE accreditation and reports independently is up to £42,000 a year.

I’m fascinated by this fundamental difference in the way echocardiography happens in the US versus the UK. I wonder how it impacts either clinical outcomes or the cost of medical care in the two countries.

I’ll be posting information on the training that UK physiologists go through in the near future.

I welcome comments from any UK readers on their experience with private or NHS echocardiograms, either good or bad.

I remain Anglophilically yours,

-ACP

 

N.B.  For your further edification, I’ve copied Dr. Kenny’s About Page from the HeartScan web page.

Perhaps Dr. Kenny can tell us what all those initials after her name mean.

About Dr Kenny

Dr. Antoinette Kenny, Director of HeartScan Ltd.
MB BCh BAO MD FRCP FRCPI

Dr. Antoinette Kenny is a full time Consultant Cardiologist and Specialist in Echocardiography (ultrasound heart scans) at the Regional Cardiothoracic Centre, Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne.  She is also an expert in cardiac screening for individuals involved in sport.

Dr. Kenny qualified in medicine in Dublin in 1983 and trained in clinical cardiology at St. James’s Hospital Dublin and Papworth Hospital Cambridge. She was awarded the Grimshaw-Parkinson  Fellowship from Cambridge University for her research towards an MD thesis in echocardiography at Papworth Hospital. She was made a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, London, in 1998 and of the Royal College of Physicians, Ireland, in 1999.

Following her clinical cardiology training and MD thesis she was appointed Fellow in Echocardiography at the Oregon Health Sciences University, Portland, Oregon, USA.  There she undertook training in advanced echocardiography, including three-dimensional echo techniques, with Professor David Sahn the internationally renowned specialist in echocardiography. In 1993, at the relatively young age of 33, she was appointed Consultant Cardiologist and Clinical Head of Echocardiography at The Regional Cardiothoracic Centre, Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne.  At that time only 19 (<5%) of consultant cardiologists in the UK were female and an even smaller percentage of cardiologists had achieved consultant status by the age of 33, facts which serve to highlight Dr. Kenny’s postgraduate career achievements.  (Source Royal College of Physicians Census).

Echo experience:
As Clinical Head of Echocardiography at Freeman Hospital for over 20 years, Dr. Kenny has gained a vast experience in assessing patients with heart failure, valve disorders and inherited cardiomyopathies.  Her expertise includes evaluation and selection of patients for advanced valve replacement techniques such as TAVI (transcutaneous aortic valve implantation) and minimally invasive surgery.  She is a member of the Specialist Heart Valve Team at Freeman Hospital providing specialist echocardiographic expertise for the selection of patients for valve surgery.

Sports Cardiology experience:
Dr. Kenny is also a cardiology adviser to the Football Association (FA) and a member of the FA cardiology consensus panel producing guidelines for cardiac screening.  She has performed cardiac screening for the Football Association since this programme was introduced for young footballers in 1996.

Dr Kenny has also been involved with investigation and heart screening in premiership football players for the last decade and provides heart screening for Newcastle United FC, Sunderland AFC and Middlesbrough FC, including their first team players. Dr. Kenny has particular expertise in distinguishing between the normal changes produced by athletic training (athlete’s heart) that could be misinterpreted as abnormalities and abnormal cardiac conditions that can pose a serious health risk.

Achievements:
Dr Kenny holds full accreditation with the British Society of Echocardiography, the national benchmark of quality in performing and interpreting Echo scans.  As an elected council member of the British Society of Echocardiography she has been involved with standards and quality in delivery of national Echo services.  She also held the post of Chairman of the Scientific and Research Committee of the British Society of Echocardiography with responsibility for organisation of the annual meeting and educational sessions.

She is co-author of a well received textbook of echocardiography which has been translated into other languages. Dr. Kenny is also a leader in education in echocardiography, co-directing a national Echo course and invited to lecture at both national and international Echo conferences.

Dr. Kenny has developed and led research studies in advanced applications of echocardiography over the last two decades and has published widely in peer reviews journals.

How Much Does or Should An Echocardiogram Cost?

One might assume the skeptical cardiologist has a quick and accurate answer to this question given that he has spent a very large amount of his career either researching, teaching or interpreting echocardiograms.

Surprisingly, however, it turns out to be extremely difficult to come up with a good response.

An echocardiogram is an ultrasound test that tells us very precisely what is going on with the heart muscle and valves. I’ve written previously here and here on how important they are in cardiology, and how they can be botched.

As in the  example of a severely leaking aortic valve  below, we get information on the structure of the heart (in grey scale) and   on  blood flow (color Doppler). This type of information is invaluable in assessing cardiac patients.

In the last week I’ve had 2 patients call the office indicating that even with insurance coverage, their out of pocket costs for an echocardiogram were unacceptably high – almost a thousand dollars.

Wide Variations In Equipment, Recording and Interpretation Expertise For Echocardiograms

A small, handheld ultrasound machine that performs the basics of echocardiography can now be purchased for 5 to 10K. More sophisticated systems with more elaborate capabilities cost up to 200K. In my echo lab the machines are typically replaced about every 5 years, but in smaller, more cost sensitive labs they can be used for decades.

An echo test typically takes up to an hour, and a sonographer performs up to 8-10 tests per day. At facilities trying to maximize profit, tests are shortened and sonographers might perform 20 per day.

In the U.S., echos are performed by sonographers who have trained for several years (specifically in the field of ultrasound evaluation of the heart) and earn on average around 30$ per hour, however, Medicare and third party payors usually don’t require any sonographer certification for echo reimbursement.

Physicians who read echocardiograms vary from having rudimentary training to having spent years of extra training in echocardiography, and gaining board certification documenting their expertise.

Interpretation of a normal echocardiogram takes less than 10 minutes, whereas a complicated valvular or congenital examination requiring comparison to previous studies, review of clinical records and other imaging modalities, could take more than an hour.

Given these wide parameters, estimating what one should charge for the technical or physician portions of the average echo is challenging.

Wildly Differing Charges For Echocardiograms

Elizabeth Rosental wrote an excellent piece for the NY Times in 2014 in which she described the striking discrepancy between 2 echos a man underwent at 2 different locations:

Len Charlap, a retired math professor, has had two outpatient echocardiograms in the past three years that scanned the valves of his heart. The first, performed by a technician at a community hospital near his home here in central New Jersey, lasted less than 30 minutes. The next, at a premier academic medical center in Boston, took three times as long and involved a cardiologist.

And yet, when he saw the charges, the numbers seemed backward: The community hospital had charged about $5,500, while the Harvard teaching hospital had billed $1,400 for the much more elaborate test. “Why would that be?” Mr. Charlap asked. “It really bothered me.”

Testing has become to the United States’ medical system what liquor is to the hospitality industry: a profit center with large and often arbitrary markups”

This graph shows the marked variation across the US in price of an echo.  In all the examples, however, what the hospitals were paid was around 400$ which is the amount that CMS pays for the complete echo CPT code 93306.

Costs Outside the US

At the Primus Super Specialty Hospital in New Delhi, India, apparently you can get an echocardiogram for $50.

This site looks at prices for private echos across the UK. The cheapest is in Bridgend in Wales (where suicide is rampant) at 175 pounds. You can get an echo for 300 pounds at the Orwell clinic (where their motto is “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”)

At one private  UK clinic, you can have your echo read by Dr. Antoinette Kenny, who appears extremely well qualified  for the task.

“In 1993, at the relatively young age of 33, she was appointed Consultant Cardiologist and Clinical Head of Echocardiography at The Regional Cardiothoracic Centre, Freeman Hospital, Newcastle upon Tyne.  At that time only 19 (<5%) of consultant cardiologists in the UK were female and an even smaller percentage of cardiologists had achieved consultant status by the age of 33, facts which serve to highlight Dr. Kenny’s postgraduate career achievements.”

Whereas I would not be interested in getting an echo done in India or Mexico, I would definitely have one done in Dr. Kenny’s center if I lived nearby.

Self Pay Cost

My hospital, like most, will write off the costs of an echo for indigent patients. I will read the tests on such patients pro bono (although doctors never use that term because we feel it makes us sound to lawyeresque).

The hospital also has a price it charges for those patients who are not indigent, but who have excessively high deductibles or co-pays with their insurance. In some cases this “self-pay” charge is significantly less than what the patient would pay with their insurance.

Paying out of the pocket for the echocardiogram may also make sense if the patient and/or physician really thinks the test is warranted, but the patient’s insurance deems it unncessary.

If you find yourself in a situation where a needed echocardiogram performed at your ordering doctor’s preferred facility is prohibitively high, it makes sense to look around for a more affordable option.

However, I must advise readers to be very cautious. In the NY Times example, the hospital charges for Mr. Charlap seemed inversely proportional to the quality of the echo he received.

This is not necessarily the case for a self pay echo. It is more likely that a cheap upfront out-of-pocket cost quote in a doctor’s office or a screening company reflects cheap equipment with minimal commitment to quality and brevity of exam and interpretation time.

I have encountered numerous examples of this in my own practice.

One of my patients who has undergone surgical repair of her mitral valve decided to get an echocardiogram as part of a LifeLine screening (see here and here for all the downsides of such screenings).

The report failed to note that my patient had a bicuspid aortic valve and an enlarged thoracic aorta.  These are extremely significant findings with potentially life threatening implications if missed.

If a high quality echo recording and interpretation is indicated for you make sure that the equipment, technician and physician reader involved in your case are up to the task.

Ultrasonically Yours,

-ACP

What Is the Significance Of A Spot On The Lung? The Three-eyed Radiologist On Incidental Pulmonary Nodules

The Three-eyed Radiologist (TR) has been asked by The Skeptical Cardiologist (SC) to discuss the epidemic of incidental pulmonary nodules that are found on routine cardiac diagnostic studies including coronary calcium CTs, coronary CTAs, and myocardial perfusion scans (using CT for attenuation correction), not to mention a whole host of other CT (computed tomography or “CAT”) scans and x-ray exams performed for many reasons that have nothing to do with inspecting lungs for pulmonary nodules. The TR will herein anticipate and answer common questions that might be asked by the SC audience.

  1. What is a pulmonary nodule (and why should I care)?

A pulmonary nodule is a nonspecific “spot” or lesion or density seen in the lung (1). It could be nothing. It could indicate lung cancer, and that is why you should care. Larger nodules, say 8 mm or larger (bigger than one-third of an inch), are of greater concern than smaller ones, but size alone is not an indicator of malignancy or benignity.

An incidental pulmonary nodule (inside red circle) discovered on a CT scan of the chest which was done in conjunction with a nuclear stress test.

A nodule may initially appear to be benign but upon further investigation be malignant—or vice versa. It could be a scar. It could indicate an old infection of no consequence. It could indicate an active infection or inflammation.

Again, it is a nonspecific finding that requires further thought, analysis and maybe additional testing.

2. Okay, you scared me by mentioning cancer. What should I do about a pulmonary nodule?

In many instances, the nodule can be dismissed if it has characteristic imaging features of a granuloma (calcium) or hamartome (fat) or if it can be shown to be stable over time (at least two years in many typical nodules). In most other cases, the nodule will require a follow up scan or two, and occasionally a PET scan and or a consultation with a lung doctor (a pulmonologist). Less frequently, the nodule will need a biopsy or to be removed, especially if it is likely or proven to represent cancer.

3. How common are pulmonary nodules?

Very common. In fact, last week the TR’s own 85 year old father texted him to tell him about the incidental pulmonary nodule discovered in the right lung when he was having a CT scan of the kidneys for blood in the urine.

The TR spends a good deal of his work day following pulmonary nodules with serial chest CT scans and discovers them regularly, too. The American Thoracic Society estimates that as many as one half of all people getting an x-ray or CT scan that includes part of the lungs has a pulmonary nodule (1). The TR’s experience is that the number is quite a bit lower in actual practice.

4. I have a pulmonary nodule. What should I do about it?

First, do not panic. Much of the time, this amounts to very little.

There are evidence-based consensus recommendations called, The Fleischner Society Guidelines (2), created with input from leading chest radiologists, pulmonologists, and chest surgeons, to advise the doctor and patient to manage these incidental lung nodules. It was updated in early 2017, and the new guidelines represent the state-of-the-art for handling this medically common scenario.

Based on the size and appearance, there are standardized work up and follow up protocols. The TR was positively pleased to see that the new recommendations are much less aggressive than the early version, previously requiring more frequent workup and monitoring for minuscule nodules that never seemed to amount for much. As the TR ages, his visual acuity for small things is naturally declining, and he is thrilled that the tiniest nodules can now usually be ignored.

5. While I have you here, TR, what’s the deal with lung cancer screening?

Lung cancer screening is a newer test, using low dose CT scans, for the early detection of lung cancer in a subset of people with a history of smoking (3). It was graded “B”, by the USPSTF, for its life saving potential (for comparison, screening mammography gets a “C” grade) and is offered to Medicare and commercial insurance patients who qualify, based mostly on age and smoking history. The CT scans are used to detect and follow the same nodules discussed above. If you are a smoker or former smoker, consider a discussion with your doctor as to whether or not lung cancer screening might benefit you.

6. Thank you, TR. What can I do to repay you for this useful information?

Do not tell the SC, but the TR loves salted caramel gelato and will accept gelato donations.

1) https://www.thoracic.org/patients/patient-resources/resources/lung-nodules-online.pdf

2) http://pubs.rsna.org/doi/pdf/10.1148/radiol.2017161659

3)https://www.uspreventiveservicestaskforce.org/Page/Document/UpdateSummaryFinal/lung-cancer-screening

N.B. The Three-eyed Radiologist is Robert Kanterman, MD, a radiology colleague at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, MO. He can be followed on Twitter @3EyeRadiologist

 

What Is The Cause of Low Voltage (Unreadable or Unclassified) AliveCor/Kardia Mobile ECG Recordings?

The skeptical cardiologist has had several of his readers submit stories and tracings of AliveCor Mobile ECG recordings which yield unclassified or unreadable recordings. In some cases this is due to excess noise but a lot of these tracings suffer from low voltage: the height of the tracing is very small.

John, a skepcard reader, is typical.

Recently, he noted his heart was racing and made an AliveCor recording which came back interpreted by the app as normal

EKG-3
First tracing. Note the QRS complex (the large regular spikes) are 2 boxes high. Right in front of them is a little bump, the p wave indicating normal sinus rhythm

 

Three hours later he made a second recording which has drastically lower voltage: the only deflections visible are tiny QRS complexes, the p waves have disappeared. I think this is also normal sinus rhythm but because p waves can’t be seen this came back uninterpretable and if there were any irregularity AliveCor would have called it atrial fibrillation:

EKG-4
Second tracing. Note the QRS spikes now are less than half of a box tall. There are no consistent p waves visible (unless one has a good imagination). The bumps after QRS spikes are T waves.

John has a theory on the cause of some of his low voltage recordings which I shall reveal in a subsequent post after testing it.

In the meantime, if any readers have suggestions as to causes of low voltage recordings or have noted similar issues please comment below or send recordings and observations to DRP@theskepticalcardiologist.com.

Voltagophilistically Yours,

-ACP