Category Archives: Cardiac Tests

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

 

 

 

 

Donald Trump Has Moderate Plaque Buildup In His Coronary Arteries and his Risk For A Cardiac Event Is Seven Times Hilary Clinton’s Risk

Donald Trump recently appeared on the Dr. Oz show and handed a letter to the celebrity medical charlatan and TV host, Mehmet Oz.

The letter was written by his personal physician , Dr. Harold Bornstein,  screen-shot-2016-10-04-at-3-21-11-pm
and summarized various  laboratory and test  results which led Bornstein to conclude  that Mr. Trump is in excellent health (Bornstein did not repeat his earlier, bizarre statement that “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”)

From a cardiovascular standpoint the following sentence stood out:

“His calcium score in 2013 was 98.”

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.

What Does Donald’s Trump’s Calcium Score Tell Us About His Risk Of A Major Cardiac Event?

We know that, on average, even if you take a statin drug (Trump is taking rosuvastatin or Crestor), the calcium score goes up at least 10% per year which means that 3 years after that 98 score we would predict Trump’s calcium score to be around 120.

Based on large, observational studies of asymptomatic patients, Calcium scores of 101 to 400 put a patient in the moderately high risk category for cardiovascular events.

When I read a calcium score of 101-400, I make the following statements (based on the most widely utilized reference from Rumberger

This patient has:

-Definite, at least moderate atherosclerotic plaque burden

-Non-obstructive CAD (coronary artery disease) highly likely, although obstructive disease possible

-Implications for cardiovascular risk: Moderately High

Patients in this category have a 7-fold risk of major  cardiac events (heart attack or death from coronary heart disease) compared to an individual with a zero calcium scorescreen-shot-2016-10-04-at-3-16-25-pm

 

 

Clinton versus Trump: Zero is Better

Since we know that Hillary Clinton recently had a calcium scan with a score of zero, we can estimate that Trump’s risk of having a heart attack or dying from a cardiac event is markedly  higher than Clinton’s.

Clinton, born October 26, 1947 is 68 years old and we can enter her calcium score into the MESA calcium calculator to see how she compares to other women her age. A  coronary calcium score of 6 is at the 50th percentile for this group.

Interestingly, Trump’s score of 98 at age 67 years was exactly at the 50th percentile. In other words half of all white men age 67 years are below 98 and half are above 98, creeping into the moderately high risk  category.

(This should not be surprising, I touched on the high estimated cardiovascular risk of all aging men in my post entitled “Should all men over age sixty take a statin drug?”)

So, based on his coronary calcium score from 2013, Donald Trump has a  moderate build up of atherosclerotic plaque in his coronary arteries and is at a seven-fold higher risk of a cardiac event compared to Hilary Clinton.

Let the law suits and tweets begin!

Electorally Yours,

-ACP

 

 

 

 

Getting To The Heart Of Father’s Day

The skeptical cardiologist received an email from the folks at AliveCor a few days ago with the subject line:

Dad’s heart matters – Kardia Mobile for Dad will give you peace of mind and make Dad happy

The email contains this image of an older well-dressed man (withScreen Shot 2016-06-18 at 9.03.26 AM lots of bling) standing in a beautiful meadow near the ocean. The man has decided to turn his back on the ocean and check his heart rhythm using the AliveCor/Kardia (AliveCor has changed the name of its ECG devices to Kardia) mobile ECG. This man is a happy dad! (Unless his heart rhythm is interpreted as atrial fibrillation. Then the beach walk is ruined.)

The email asks the question “What if Dad’s heart really was an open book?”

Uhh, he’d be dead? Clearly books don’t function well at pumping 5 or 6 liters of blood through the cardiovascular system every minute whether they are open or closed. Perhaps  the question is using either  the heart or an open book as a metaphor?

The advertisement goes on to suggest that I get my dad an AliveCor device for father’s day  “So you always know what his heart is thinking.”

I believe this is the marketing person’s attempt to extend the metaphor of the open book, i.e., you know exactly what dad’s brain is thinking, now you can extend this knowledge to his heart.  The metaphor of the heart “thinking” is quite poor but poor metaphors are the norm today.

Bad metaphors and bad writing abound on father’s day because 90 million greeting cards are purchased and given as (according to the Greeting Card Association)  “a meaningful expression of personal affection for another person.” Despite the increasing use of Facebook and its ilk to transmit emotions, the Greeting Card Association assures us that “The tradition of giving greeting cards … is still being deeply ingrained in today’s youth, and this tradition will likely continue as they become adults and become responsible for managing their own important relationships.

Mobile Ecg Monitor As A Father’s Day Gift

I have to say that despite the horror of the writing in this email advertisement it got me thinking about getting my father a Kardia device. I’ve suggested  previously that  an AliveCor device would make a good gift for Christmas for a loved one who has intermittent unexplained palpitations or atrial fibrillation but had not considered this for my dad.

For one thing he does not possess a smart phone which is required to  make the Kardia device functional. For another, he doesn’t have atrial fibrillation (that we know of. Perhaps if I knew what his heart was thinking we would find out that it likes to fibrillate late at night,)

Perhaps it’s time to upgrade my Dad to an iPhone I began thinking.

But wait! He has an iPad mini (that he seems to only use for FaceTime conversations.)

Further research reveals that Kardia is not only compatible with iPhone and Android smartphones but apparently iPads and IPod Touch.Screen Shot 2016-06-19 at 8.04.27 AM

Taking Care of Dad’s Heart

What about the rest of the slick advertising copy in my email?

And now you can know the way to help take care of it. Kardia gives Dad a medical-grade EKG in only 30 seconds. It even gives him expert analysis and tracking, with reports getting shared directly with his physician

This part is pretty clear and correct. I use Kardia daily in my office to record patient’s heart rhythm and I have a dozen patients now who make recordings outside of the office. They can have their recordings read by a random cardiologist for a fee or establish a link with me as their provider and I can review them through my account for free.

 Is It The First Father’s Day Gift That Leads To More Father’s Days?

The ad ends with the remarkably brazen statement that “It’s the first Father’s Day gift that leads to more Father’s Days.”

While I find the device more helpful in many instances than current expensive and intrusive long term monitoring devices for detecting and monitoring atrial fibrillation and other abnormal heart rhythms, it is a huge leap to suggest that this translates somehow into a longer life span.

To AliveCor’s credit, despite such ridiculous marketing drivel , studies presented at the recent Heart Rhythm Society Scientific Meetings suggest:

  • Kardia Mobile Superior to Conventional Monitoring: Researchers at the Leeds General Infirmary found that the AliveCor monitor is superior to conventional Holter monitoring in patients with palpitations, providing a higher diagnostic yield, more detected arrhythmias, with a similar workload.

  • Kardia Mobile Leads to Improved Patient Compliance:Researchers at the University of Buffalo found that AliveCor provides a diagnostic yield comparable to a 30-day ambulatory looping event monitor and that the smartphone-based ECG monitor can be used as a first approach for the diagnosis of palpitations.

  • Kardia Mobile provided more information resulting in changes in arrhythmia patient management than traditional external event recorders in a study from researchers at the University of Miami.

  • AliveCor’s AF algorithm was reported to be superior by researchers at Arizona State University to the patient’s own ability to detect AF via symptoms.

    But even if these studies make it to publication they don’t suggest the device provides any improved longevity. In fact, such data, do not exist for any monitoring device.

Happy Father’s Day, Dad! Don’t be surprised when we FaceTime later today that I’ve found another use for your iPad.

Paternally Yours,

-ACP

N.B. Clearly I receive no consulting, speaking or P.R. writing fees of any kind from AliveCor. Nor do they provide me with any free devices. What’s more, when I lose one of their devices they don’t replace it.  I am totally free of any conflict of interest.