Category Archives: Premature Beats:PVCs and PACs

Which Ambulatory ECG Monitor For Which Patient?

The skeptical cardiologist still feels that KardiaPro has  eliminated  use of long term monitoring devices for most of his afib patients

However not all my afib patients are willing and able to self-monitor their atrial fibrillation using the Alivecor Mobile ECG device. For the Kardia unwilling and  many patients who don’t have afib we are still utilizing lots of long term monitors.

The ambulatory ECG monitoring world is very confusing and ever-changing but I recently came across a nice review of the area in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine which can be read in its entirety for free here.

This Table summarizes the various options available. I particularly like that they included relative cost. .

The traditional ambulatory ECG device is the “Holter” monitor which is named after its inventor and is relatively inexpensive and worn for 24 to 48 hours.

The variety of available devices are depicted in this nice graphic:

For the last few years we have predominantly been using the two week “patch” type devices in most of our patients who warrant a long term monitor. The Zio is the prototype for this but we are also using the BioTelemetry patch increasingly.

The more expensive mobile cardiac outpatient telemetry (MCOT) devices like the one below from BioTel look a lot like the patches now. The major difference to the patient is that the monitor has to be taken out and recharged every 5 days. In addition, as BioTel techs are reviewing the signal from the device they can notify the patient if the ECG from the patch is inadequate and have them switch to an included lanyard/electrode set-up.

The advantage of the patch monitors is that they are ultraportable, relatively unobtrusive and they monitor continuously with full disclosure.

The patch is applied to the left chest and usually stays there for two weeks (and yes, patients do get to shower during that time) at which time it is mailed back to the company for analysis.

Continuously Monitoring,

-ACP

A Patient’s Confusing Journey Into The Quagmire Of Cardiac Imaging: A Cautionary Tale

Mary-Ann, a reader from the north,  provides today’s post. Her story illustrates how easily medical care can veer off the rails while it is simultaneously railroading patients.  It is a cautionary tale with wisdom that can help most patients.

In this post I’ll just present Mary-Ann’s perspective and solicit responses.  Down the line I’ll provide some perspective on the processes, the problems and the solutions.


It started innocently enough. I showed up for a regular visit with my cardiac provider, a mid-level professional. She noted I was flushed and had a high pulse — about 100. 

Starbucks, I explained, and I flush easily — always have. She looked skeptical.

That is how I went from a half-caf Americano to a 48-hour holter monitor.

I went back for results — the usual ectopic beats but nothing scary or new. But again, she noted I had a fast heart rate and I was flushed.

And once again I explained: Starbucks — it is right down the street and okay, I might have a problem.

That is the short — but highly accurate — version of how I wound up getting a stress echo. 

I showed up for the results of the echo and that is where the runaway train started down the tracks.

“…possible inferoapical wall hypokinesis with lack of augmentation of systolic function, which are abnormal findings and may be indicative of ischemia due to underlying coronary artery disease. EF was 56% at rest and 40-50% at stress.” 

Wait — what?!

I was marched down the hall and scheduled for a cardiac angiography — and told not to run any marathons in the intervening two days. 

Marathon?! I was terrified I was going to drop dead at any moment. I contemplated just sitting the waiting room for 48 hours — just to be safe.

Then I started reading the professional literature and things were not adding up. An EF at stress of 40 – 50% is not good — in fact, it can be heading into heart failure land.

But I was active and fine — it did not make any sense.

I called the office; my provider was not available. I explained that I was worried there was a mistake. Oh no, I was assured, they are very careful to not make mistakes.

I wrote my will. I cried a lot. 

And when the person called to remind me of the procedure (like I could forget!?) I once again explained that I was worried there had been a mistake, and once again — reassurance. No mistake.

Nevertheless, she (aka me) persisted!

I sat on the hospital bed in nothing but a gown and handed the nurse my two-page letter; it started like this:

“I am reminded that what is normal and ordinary for a professional is never that for a patient. I am terrified.

First, I want to be really sure that there is not any chance of a mix-up in the stress echo test results. This is not simple denial or wishful thinking…” 

And that nurse paid attention, which is how I wound up not having a cardiac angiography. 

The cardiologist scheduled to do the procedure — we shall call him Doc #2 — wrote: 

“She has some concerns regarding the results of the stress echo study … I reviewed the most recent stress echo and it appears to me that the results for the resting versus the stress echo ejection fractions have been transposed…”

Translation: A Typo.

I was elated! Jubilant! We went to Starbucks to celebrate.

The giddy joy quickly turned to something along the lines of WTH just happened here? I read the original echo report written by Doc #1 — that lit the tinder. There were two different values for EF at stress documented in the report, and another sentence that was repeated. 

The professorial side of me was deeply affronted — in a subsequent meeting with hospital administrators I confess to saying that someone who is making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year doesn’t get to write such a sloppy ass report — and about someone’s heart, no less! 

But the best part of that meeting was learning that Doc #1 denied there was a typo — he stood by his findings. 

Oh dear.

And Doc #2 stood by his findings as well. And Doc #3 got involved somewhere along the way and he agreed with Doc #2. And the mid-level Provider also agreed with Doc #2.

The majority rule seems like an odd way to make health care decisions — wouldn’t you think all those smart people could talk among themselves and agree?

Apparently not.

That first meeting with the hospital folks included all manner of solicitous apologies and an attitude of collaboration. Of course, they said, we can send the echo to an outside cardiologist — at our expense — and get an answer.

And then I made the unthinkable mistake — and I blame the Skeptical Cardiologist for this — of asking informed questions.

“Are the cardiologists involved in reading my echo Level III echo specialists?”

“I understand that there can be variance in estimated EF between cardiologists — what level of variance is considered acceptable?”

The hospital team responded to my questions by calling a meeting — and the tone had changed considerably (Thanks a lot, Corporate Legal).

The offer to pay for an outside opinion was off the table — after all, they said, you would not have a patient-provider relationship with the cardiologist reading the echo. Ahem, I noted — I have zero relationship with the first cardiologist who read the echo and would not know him if I bumped into him at Starbucks. And you all did offer to pay for that outside opinion…

Oh never mind those minor details. No outside opinion on their dime. They would do a Lexiscan at their expense as a tie breaker. Final Offer.

Tiebreaker — really?! Is this a soccer game?

And seriously — should I have to have an invasive test to settle THEIR disagreement?! [Note: If it involves needles, it is invasive.]

Because there were not enough cardiologists involved already, I saw yet another one — from a different practice. He offered that the EF at stress looked more like 55%, placing his bet smack in the middle, and recommending a CT Angiography Coronary Arteries with Contrast as the tiebreaker.

Tiebreaker. That word implies both sides are equivalent or equal. However, my heart is not actually a game and the two teams cannot both be right — there is no equivalency in play here. What we are really trying to do involves accuracy — not breaking a tie score.

But I digress.

It doesn’t seem like you should have to make a chart to keep track of what cardiologists say about the same echo but in this case, it seemed necessary.

 And in the meantime, yet another cardiologist weighed in that the quality of the echo was poor — and no wonder they could not agree.

Deep breaths.

And so, for the past four months I have tried to navigate all this, and to understand what this actually means about cardiology and medicine and so many things. My confidence and my mind have been blown. Resources – and time – have been wasted. 

Ectopic heartbeats are typically benign in a structurally normal heart — I thought I was safe. But I have not felt safe since that day when I learned that Doc #1 and Docs #2, 3, and so on had decided to have a stand-off at the OK Corral that is my heart.

Except, I do not know if it is okay. And that is the problem. 


Unfortunately, Mary-Anne’s tale is not uncommon. It touches on many of the areas that patient’s should be aware of including

-Undergoing diagnostic imaging testing when you are free of symptoms

-Inadequate quality control in diagnostic imaging and how that leads to false positive results

-Variance in imaging performance and interpretation-how the same test can be read as normal by one doctor and markedly abnormal by another.

-The tendency of some cardiologists to recommend invasive testing when it is inappropriate and likely to cause more harm than good

-The importance of second opinions, especially if invasive testing is recommended

-The importance of patient’s doing their own research and asking good questions based on that research.

Transparently Yours,

-ACP

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.

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

AliveCor (Kardia) Has A Premature Beat Problem: How PVCs and PACs Confuse The Mobile ECG Device

The skeptical cardiologist has many patients who are successfully using their AliveCor/Kardia devices to monitor for episodes of atrial fibrillation (afib).

However, a significant number of patients who have had atrial fibrillation also have premature beats. Sometimes patients feel these premature beats as a skipping or irregularity of the heart beat. Such palpitations  can mimic the feeling patients get when they go into atrial fibrillation.

The ideal personal ECG monitor, therefore,  would be able to reliably differentiate afib from premature beats for such patients.

Premature Beats: PVCs and PACs

I’ve discussed premature ventricular contractions (PVCs) here and here.  Premature beats can also originate from the upper chambers of the heart or atria.

Such  premature atrial contractions (PACs) have generally been considered benign in the past but a recent study showed that frequent (>30 s per hour) PACs  or runs of >20 PACs in a row were associated with a doubling of stroke risk.

For patients who experience either PVCs or  PACs the AliveCor device is frequently inaccurate.

PACs Misdiagnosed As Atrial Fibrillation

Here is a panel of recordings made by a patient of mine who has had documented episodes of atrial flutter in the past and who monitors his heart rhythm with Alivecor regularly:

Of the ten recordings , four were identified as “possible atrial fibrillation.”

Unfortunately only one of the four “possible atrial fibrillation” recordings has any atrial fibrillation: this one has 7 beats of afib initially then changes to normal sinus rhythm (NSR).

The other 3 recordings identified by AliveCor as afib are actually normal sinus rhythm with premature beats.

The first 3 beats are NSR. Fourth beat is a premature beat

In addition, frequently for this patient AliveCor yields an “Unclassified” reading for NSR with PACs as in this ECG:

PVCs Misread As Atrial Fibrillation

I wrote about the first patient I identified in my office who had frequent PVCs which were misdiagnosed by AliveCor as afib here.

Since then, I’ve come across a handful of similar misdiagnoses.

One of my patients began experiences period palpitations 5 years after an ablation for atrial fibrillation. He obtained an AliveCor device to rec  ord his rhythm during episodes.

For this patient,, the AliveCor frequently diagnoses “possible atrial fibrillation” but  all of his episodes turn out not to be afib. In some cases he is having isolated PVCs:

The first 3 beats in the lower strip are NSR. The fourth beat (purpose circle) is a PVC. AliveCor interpreted this as afib

At other times he has periods of atrial bigeminy  which are also called afib by AliveCor. In this tracing he has atrial bigeminy and a PVC.

 

 

PVCs Read As Normal

Premature beats sometimes are interpreted by AliveCor as normal. A reader sent me a series of  recordings he had made when feeling his typical palpitations. all of which were called normal. Indeed, all of them but one showed NSR. However on the one below the cause of his palpitations can be seen: PVCs.

The NSR beats (blue arrows) followed at times by PVCs (red arrows))

I obtained the “Normal”  tracing below from a patient in my office with a biventricular pacemaker and frequent PVCs who had no symptoms.

Paced beats (blue arrows) PVCs (red arrows)

PVCs Read As Unclassified 

A woman who had undergone an ablation procedure to eliminate her very frequent PVCS began utilizing AliveCor to try to determine if she was having recurrent symptomatic PVCs. She became quite frustrated because AliveCor kept reading her heart rate at 42 BPM and giving her an unclassified reading.

AliveCor is always going to call rhythms (other than afib) unclassified when it counts a  heart rate less than 50 BPM or greater than 100 BPM.

In this patient’s case, every other beat was a PVC (red circles). Her PVCs are sufficiently early and with low voltage so the AliveCor algorithm cannot differentiate them from T Waves and only counts the normal sinus beats toward heart rate.

Accurate AliveCor Readings

I should point out that many of my patients get a very reliable assessment from their devices. These tracings from a woman with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation  are typical: all the Normal readings are truly normal and all the atrial fibrillation readings are truly atrial fibrillation with heart rates  above 100.

AliveCor’s Official Position on Premature Beats

The AliveCor manual states

The Normal Detector in the AliveECG app notifies you when a recording is “normal”.  This means that the heart rate is between 50 and 100 beats per minute, there are no or very few abnormal beats, and the shape, timing and duration of each beat is considered normal.

What qualifies as “very few” abnormal beats is not clear. The manual goes on to state that the AliveCor normal detector has been designed to be conservative with what it detects as normal.

What is clear is that premature beats  significantly confuse the AliveCor algorithm. Both PVCs and PACs can create a false positive diagnosis of atrial fibrillation when it is not present.

Consequently, if you have afib and premature beats you cannot be entirely confident that a reading of afib is truly afib. Strongly consider having the tracing reviewed by a cardiologist before concluding that you had afib.

On the other hand if you are experiencing palpitations and make a recording with Alivecor that comes back as normal do not assume that your heart rhythm was totally normal. While highly unlikely to be afib, your palpitations could still be due to PACs or PVCs.

If a patient of mine has an abnormal or questionable AliveCor recording it is currently a very simple process for me to review the recording online  through my AliveCor doctor dashboard. The recordings can also be emailed to me.

Coralively Yours,

-ACP