Tag Archives: coronary artery disease

ISCHEMIA Shows Medical Therapy Outcomes As Good As Coronary Stents or Bypass For Most CAD Patients

The ISCHEMIA (International Study of Comparative Health Effectiveness With Medical And Invasive Approaches) study presented at the AHA meeting this week provides further evidence that a conservative approach utilizing optimal medical therapy is an acceptable strategy for most patients with stable coronary disease (CAD).

Cardiologists have known for a decade (since the landmark COURAGE study) that outside the setting of an acute heart attack (acute coronary syndrome or ACS), coronary stents don’t save lives and that they don’t prevent heart attacks.

Current guidelines reflect this knowledge, and indicate that stents in stable patients with coronary artery disease should be placed only after a failure of  “guideline-directed medical therapy.”  Despite these recommendations, published in 2012, half of the thousands of stents implanted annually in the US continued to be employed in patients with either no symptoms or an inadequate trial of medical therapy.

Yes, lots of stents are placed in asymptomatic patients.  And lots of patients who have stents placed outside the setting of ACS are convinced that their stents saved their lives, prevented future heart attacks and “fixed” their coronary artery disease. It is very easy to make the case to the uneducated patient that a dramatic intervention to “cure” a blocked artery is going to be more beneficial than merely giving medications that stabilize atherosclerotic plaque, dilate the coronary artery or slow the heart’s pumping action to reduce myocardial oxygen demands.

Stent procedures are costly  in the US (average charge around $30,000, range $11,000 to $40,000) and there are significant risks including death, stroke and heart attack. After placement, patients must take powerful antiplatelet drugs which increase their risk of bleeding. There should be compelling reasons to place stents if we are not saving lives.

What Did ISCHEMIA Prove?

ISCHEMIA (paper unpublished but slides available here) showed that an invasive strategy (employing cardiac catheterization with resulting stenting or coronary bypass surgery (CABG)) offered no benefit over optimal medical therapy in preventing cardiovascular events in patients with moderate to severe CAD.

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Rates of all-cause death were nearly superimposable over the years studied, reaching 6.5% and 6.4% at 4 years for the invasive and conservative groups,

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Inclusions and exclusion criteria are listed below. Patients with unnaceptable angina despite optimal medical therapy were not included. These patients clearly benefit symptomatically from revascularization (as long as their chest pain is actually angina and not from another cause.)

All patients had stress imaging studies demonstrating moderate to severe amounts of ischemia. Such patients with very abnormal stress tests in the past have typically been sent immediately to the cath lab.

Based on ISCHEMIA we now know in these patients there is no need to do anything urgently other than institute OMT.

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These patients were on good medical therapy which likely explains the very good outcomes in both conservative and invasive arms. The “high level of medical therapy optimization” is what cardiologists should be shooting for with LDL<70, on a statin with systolic blood pressure <140 mm Hg, on an antiplatelet drugg and not smoking.

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Interestingly coronary CT angiography (CCTA) was utilized prior to patients receiving catheterization. I’ve been  utilizing this noninvasive method for visualizing the coronary arteries increasingly prior to committing to an invasive approach.

Quality Of Life 

Finally, in a separate presentation the ISCHEMIA trial showed that the invasive strategy did improve symptoms and quality of life modestly. It did not improve quality of life in those without angina symptoms.

The ORBITA study (which I wrote about here) showed that a large amount of the symptomatic improvement in patients following stenting may be a placebo effect.

Importance Of ISCHEMIA

Hopefully the results of ISCHEMIA will cut down on the number of unnecessary catheterizations, stents and bypass operations performed. This, in turn, will save our health system millions of dollars and prevent unnecessary complications.

Outside the setting of an acute heart attack the best approach to patients with blocked coronary arteries is a calm, thoughtful, and measured one which allows ample time for shared decision-making between informed patients and knowledgeable physicians. Such decisions should carefully consider the ISCHEMIA, COURAGE and ORBITA results.

Nonischemically Yours,


N.B. Ischemia is a fantastic acronym for this study. Doctors use it a lot to describe the absence of sufficient blood flow to tissues.

N.B.2 Although I deplore the number of unnecessary caths and stents performed in the US, especially in patients without symptoms and those with noncardiac chest pain, I still utilize them in my patients with flow-limiting coronary stenoses and unacceptable anginal chest pain with symptoms despite optimal medical therapy and have noticed outstanding results. This angiogram shows a tight, eccentric LAD blockage in such a patient who now, post stent, has had complete resolution of the chest pain that limited him from even short walks.

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How Common Are Inaccurate Coronary Artery Calcium Scans?

One reason the  skeptical cardiologist has been so enthusiastic about coronary calcium (CAC) scans is that I have found them to be highly reproducible and highly accurate.

Unlike most  imaging tests in cardiology if we perform a CAC on the same individual in the CT scanner of hospital A and then repeat it within a few days in the CT scanner of hospital B we expect the scores to be nearly identical.

Also, unlike most other imaging tests we don’t expect false negatives or false positives. If the CAC score is zero there is no coronary calcification-high sensitivity. If the score is nonzero there is definitively calcium and therefore atherosclerotic plaque in the coronaries-high specificity.

This is  because calcium as defined in the Agatson score is literally black and white-a pixel is either above or below the cut-off. Computer software automatically identifies on the scan. A reasonably trained CT tech should be able to identify the calcium that is residing in the coronary arteries based on his or her knowledge of the coronary anatomy as registered on CT slices. Using software the total Agatson score is calculated.

A physician reader (either cardiologist or radiologist) (who should have a very good understanding of the cardiac and coronary anatomy ) should review the CT techs work and verify accuracy.

A recent case report, however, has demonstrated that the above  assumptions are not always true.

Franz Messerli, a pre-eminent researcher in hypertension and a cardiologist describes in fascinating detail a false-positive CAC scan he underwent in 2013.  He was told he had a score of 804 putting him in a high risk category consistent with extensive plaque formation.

After consulting with cardiologist friends and colleagues he decided to put himself on a statin and aspirin despite having an excellent lipid profile.

Messerli assumed that the CAC score was not a false positive (although later in his article he indicates he had questioned the reading) writing:

“although one can always quibble with ST segments or wall motion abnormalities, on the CAC the evidence is rock-hard, you actually with your own eyes can see the white calcium specks! ‘Individuals with very high Agatston scores (over 1000) have a 20% chance of suffering a myocardial infarction or cardiac death within a year’—although I did not quite classify, this patient information coming from esteemed Harvard cardiology colleagues3 was hardly reassuring.

(His reference 3 for the 20% risk of MI or cardiac death in a year for CAC score >1000 is suspect. It is a 2003 “patient page” on coronary calcium in Circulation which does not have a reference for that statistic.)

A more recent study found patients with extensive CAC (CAC≥1000) represent a unique, very high-risk phenotype with CVD mortality outcomes (0.80%/yr) commensurate with high-risk secondary prevention patients (0.77%/yr) from the FOURIER trial)

Six years after the diagnosis Messerli was at a Picasso exhibition, “leisurely ambling between his Blue and Pink Period “when he developed chest pain.

To further evaluate the chest pain he underwent a coronary CT angiogram and this demonstrated pristine and normal coronary arteries, totally devoid of calcium.

He did have a lot of mitral annular calcification (MAC). The CCTA images below show how close the MAC is to the left circumflex coronary artery (LCX).



















The slice above shows how the MAC would appear on the CT scan designed to assess coronary calcium.  It’s position is very close to that of the circumflex but an experienced reader/tech  should have known this was not coronary calcification.

MAC is a very common finding on echocardiograms, especially in the elderly and it is likely that this error is not an isolated one.

Dr. Messerli writes

After relating these findings to the cardiologist who did the initial CAC, he indicated that most likely someone mistook mitral annular calcification as left circumflex calcium. This was hardly reassuring, since I specifically had asked that obvious question after receiving the initial CAC

Around the time I read Messerli’s case report I encountered a similar, albeit not as drastic case. A CAC scan showed a significant area of calcification near the left circumflex coronary artery which was scored as circumflex coronary calcification.


The  pattern of this calcification is not consistent with the known path of the circumflex coronary in this case. When it was eliminated from the scoring the patient had a zero score. The difference between a nonzero score and a zero score is hugely significant but for patients with scores >100 such errors are less critical.

I have also encountered cases where extracardiac calcium mimics right coronary calcification.

There are some important take-home points from my and Dr. Messerli’s experience.

  1. False positive CAC scans do occur. We don’t know the frequency. If the scans are not overread by a competent cardiologist or radiologist with extensive experience in cardiac CT these mistakes will be more common

When I asked Dr. Messerli about this problem he responded

I am afraid you are correct in that CAC scores are generated by techs and radiologists and cardiologist simply sign the report without verifying the data. Little doubt that MAC is most often missed.
     2. Like other cardiac imaging tests (such as echocardiography) having an expert/experienced/meticulous  tech and reader matters.
    3. Dr. Messerli and I agree that a research project should be done to ascertain how often this happens and to evaluate the process of reading and reporting CAC.
4. Patients should look at the breakdown of the calcium in the CAC by coronary artery. Whereas it is not uncommon to see most of the calcium in the LAD it is rare to see a huge discrepancy in which the circumflex coronary artery score is very high and the LAD score zero. Such a finding should warrant a review of the scan to see if MAC was included in error.
Skeptically Yours
N.B. Dr. Messerli’s report can be read for free and makes for entertaining reading.
I was very intrigued by two comments he made at the end:
  1. “Had my CHD been diagnosed a decade earlier, guidelines might well have condemned me to taking beta-blockers for the reminder of my days.6 This, as Philip Roth taught us in ‘The Counterlife’, might have had rather unpleasant repercussions.7

Until recently I had never read anything by Philip Roth but when he died last year I read his Pulitzer Prize winning  1987 novel American Pastoral and liked it. Given this Roth reference involving beta-blockers I felt compelled to get my hands on “The Counterlife.” The book is a good read (much better IMHO than American Pastoral) and one of the main plot points relates to the side effects (see my post on feeling logy) a character suffers from a beta-blocker. Stimulated by a desire to be able to perform sexually if taken of the medication, the character undergoes coronary bypass surgery and dies.

2. “As stated by Mandrola and true in the present case, ‘given the (lucrative) downstream testing that often occurs when coronary calcium is found in asymptomatic people, the biggest winners from CAC screening may be the testers rather than the tested’.”

I feel the CAC in the right hands should not lead to (lucrative or inappropriate) downstream testing in the asymptomatic (see my discussion on this topic here.)



What You Should Know About Lipoprotein(a) And Heart Attack Risk

If you have had a heart attack at an early age or one of your parents did but your standard risk factors for coronary heart disease are normal you should consider getting tested for Lipoprotein(a) or Lp(a).

The standard lipid profile that most patients get checks LDL (bad) HDL (good) and total cholesterol along with  triglycerides. While these are useful, I have many patients who have normal standard values but have developed advanced coronary heart disease at an early age despite following a perfect lifestyle (not smoking, regular aerobic exercise, healthy diet.)

The skeptical cardiologist tests such patients for Lp(a) (pronounced LP little a)  and it is quite frequently elevated.

For patients, these are the facts to know about Lp(a)

  1. It is the strongest single inherited (monogenetic) risk factor for the early development of coronary artery disease, heart attacks and strokes.
  2. In addition to increasing risk of atherosclerosis, high Lp(a) is strongly associated with the development of calcific aortic valve disease which can result in narrowing of the aortic valve and aortic stenosis.
  3. Depending on the cut-off used  up to one in five individuals may have elevated Lp(a)
  4. Levels of Lp(a) can be measured with a simple blood test that should cost no more than 50 to 100$. This is not included in standard lipid or cholesterol testing.
  5. Risk for heart attack starts to rise with levels above 30 mg/dl and Canadian guidelines from 2016 (see here)) consider >30 mg/dl to be a risk factor and they recommend measuring Lp(a) in those with a family history of premature CAD or those at intermediate risk.
  6. The European Atherosclerosis Society (EAS, 2010), suggested levels of <50 mg/dl as optimal. The EAS advised measuring Lp(a) once in all patients with premature CVD.
  7. As levels get even higher risk also rises as these graphs show





Treatment For High Lp(a)

The lifestyle changes (both exercise and diet) that improve bad and good cholesterol levels have no effect on Lp(a). Our best drugs, the statins, for reducing risk of heart attack and stroke also don’t lower Lp(a) levels.

Only niacin has been shown to reduce Lp(a) across broad populations but there is no evidence that Lp(a) lowering by niacin lowers cardiovascular risk so it cannot be recommended for treatment.(In the AIM-HIGH study niacin did not reduce cardiovascular events in patients with Lp(a) with levels>50 mg/dl, despite achieving a mean Lp(a) reduction of 39%.)

Cholesteryl ester transfer protein inhibitors which raise HDL levels also reduce lipoprotein(a) concentrations, but three such inhibitors have not shown a clinical benefit.

In fact, currently there are no studies showing that lowering Lp(a) with any drug will effectively lower the associated risk of heart attack, stroke and aortic stenosis.

In the not too distant future, effective therapies may emerge. There are promising newer agents (antisense oligonucleotides or ASOs) currently in clinical trials and in limited populations the PCSK9 inhbitors, mipomersen and estrogen have lowered Lp(a) levels.

Why Test For Lp(a)?

If we have no effective therapies that work by lowering Lp(a) why recommend testing for it?

I test Lp(a) for  two reasons.

First, since it is inherited, patients with high levels should consider having first degree relatives tested for Lp(a) to identify those who are going to be at high risk. This provides an early warning of who in the family is most at risk for cardiovascular complications early in life. Such patients should be considered for early screening for subclinical atherosclerosis. In addition, they should be additionally motivated to do everything possible to reduce their elevated risk by lifestyle changes.

Second, I tend to recommend  more aggressive cholesterol lowering in patients who have evidence for early plaque build up for atherosclerotic events early in life than I otherwise would be.     I tend to agree with the approach diagrammed below:


With this approach for patients who have had events related to atherosclerosis or advanced CAC for age we work super aggressively on optimizing all risk factors. I try to lower LDL to <70 with statins and with the addition of ezetimibe or PCSK9 inhbitors if needed.

If the patient has more problems with atherosclerotic events despite optimizing risk factors and Lp(a) >60 mg/dl, some experts recommend using apheresis a technique which runs the patient’s blood through a filter which removes LDL and Lp(a). Personally, I have not sent any patients for apheresis and await better studies proving its benefit.

Antiproatherogenically Yours,


For those patients seeking more detailed information and references I recommend Dr. Siggurdson’s excellent post on Lp(a)

There is a Lipoprotein(a) Foundation with reasonably informative and accurate website you can peruse here for more information.

Finally, if you want to delve deeply into the data check out this recent JACC review here.

The graphs above and this figure
showing the proposed pro-inflammatory, pro-atherogenic and pro-thrombotic pathways of Lp(a) are from that article.


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,


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.

Should You Get a Stress Test After Your Stent or Bypass Operation If You Feel Fine?

If you’ve had a coronary stent implanted or undergone bypass surgery, it is common to wonder about the status of the stent or the bypass grafts or the coronary arteries that maybe had a 50 or 60% blockage and were left alone.

This is especially likely if there was little or no warning that you had really severely blocked coronary arteries.

After all, you are thinking: “doesn’t it make sense to monitor these things and stay on top of them; be proactive?”

It certainly seems reasonable on the surface, and for many years, routine stress testing of patients without symptoms on an annual basis, was the norm.

However, this practice is much more likely to cause harm than to benefit patients and is recognized by the American College of Cardiology as one of 5 things that patients and physicians should question as part of the “Choosing Wisely” campaign (see here).

“Performing stress cardiac imaging or advanced non-invasive imaging in patients without symptoms on a serial or scheduled pattern (e.g., every one to two years or at a heart procedure anniversary) rarely results in any meaningful change in patient management. This practice may, in fact, lead to unnecessary invasive procedures and excess radiation exposure without any proven impact on patients’ outcomes.”

Studies have shown that stress testing less than two years after a coronary stent, very rarely change management.

The American College of Cardiology, American Society of Echocardiography and the American Society of Nuclear Medicine are all in agreement that stress testing less than two years after a coronary procedure is “inappropriate,” and more than two years after the procedure is “uncertain.”

Why Do Cardiologists Order These Tests If They Are Inappropriate?

There are 3 reasons, and they are representative of the major factors driving all over-testing in medicine.

  1. Financial. Cardiologists frequently benefit from stress tests they order in multiple ways. First, they may own the nuclear camera used in the test and the more stress tests performed in their office, the more money they will make from the technical remuneration for the procedure. The cardiologist also frequently interprets the test results and receives a professional fee for both supervising and interpreting the nuclear images. Finally, if the test is abnormal, the cardiologist may then recommend additional testing, which he may perform (cardiac catheterization, stent) or interpret (coronary CT angiogram).
  2. Defensive medicine. It is not uncommon for cardiologists to be sued for NOT performing a test or procedure when the patient’s outcome is bad. On the other hand, I have never heard of a cardiologist being sued for DOING an inappropriate stress test.
  3. Keeping the customer happy. Too often patients feel that if their doctor is performing frequent tests on them, he is being vigilant, proactive and “staying on top of things.” They don’t realize the down sides to the extra testing and the lack of benefit.

Not uncommonly, patients switching to me from another cardiologist indicate that they have been getting an annual stress test and are disappointed to hear that I am not recommending one.

They may think that I’m lazy or not up on the latest techniques in cardiology. Usually in this situation I have to spend a fair amount of time trying to teach them about the possible downsides of over-testing.

In the case of stress nuclear testing, harm comes from two sources:

  1. Radiation. Stress nuclear tests typically utilize the radio tracer Technetium-99 and result in a radiation dose of around 15 mSv. This is about 10 times the radiation from a typical coronary calcium scan. A chest x-ray gives 0.02 mSV and the annual background radiation in the US is 3 mSv.
  2. False positives. Nuclear imaging is very susceptible to images which appear to show abnormalities of blood flow, which in reality are just due to soft tissue (breast, diaphragm, fat) interposed between the heart and the camera. These can be interpreted as due to a heart attack or blocked coronary artery when everything is actually fine with the artery.  False positives then lead to additional testing such as a cardiac catheterization, which carries risks of bleeding, heart attack, stroke and death.

One important point to remember is that coronary stenting has not been shown to reduce heart attacks or prolong survival outside the setting of an acute heart attack. Therefore , if you’ve already had a cardiac catheterization that either resulted in bypass surgery or a stent of one artery, it is highly unlikely that a subsequent catheterization/further procedures will lower your heart attack or dying risk.

Certainly, if you have a change in symptoms that suggest that your coronary artery disease has progressed, this is an appropriate reason to consider stress testing. Such symptoms include shortness of breath on exertion and chest discomfort, especially if it occurs during activity. Diabetics often don’t have symptoms that warn them of a problem, therefore, we should consider stress testing more frequently and at a lower threshold for them.

For most people, however, more is not always better when it comes to cardiac testing and, in many circumstances, can be worse.

Here’s to choosing wisely,




The Widowmaker Documentary: A Need For Heroes and Villains Detracts From The Truth

The documentary, The Widowmaker (available on Netflix streaming)  should definitely be watched by everyone.

It presents some great information on dying suddenly from heart attacks in an entertaining way.

It makes two important points: coronary stents don’t prevent heart attacks and coronary scans can identify advanced coronary artery disease before heart attacks happen.

I am in total agreement with these two points and have made them several times in previous posts (here and here).

The film is a work of advocacy, however, and twists the truth to prove its underlying theory: that greedy doctors and hospitals are choosing to “push” expensive coronary stents that do no good until you are having a heart attack. Also, that doctors and hospitals are also somehow suppressing the use of coronary calcium scans, which could prevent millions of heart attacks and deaths.

Creating black and white heroes and villains in documentaries makes for riveting entertainment, but often at the cost of sacrificing the truth.

Let’s look at the  villains that The Widowmaker presents.

First up is Julio Palmatz. Dr. Palmatz is a vascular radiologist who invented, along with Dr. Shatz, one of the three primary stents that ultimately gained widespread clinical usage. The Widowmaker implies that Palmatz was THE stent developer, and follows Julio as he revisits the garage in Texas where he developed prototypes for the slotted tube stent.

At this point in the movie, it would be understandable if you thought Julio was going to be one of the heroes. He seems very personable as he describes the inspiration for his stent design and points out the area in the garage where his work bench stood.

However, the documentary wants, ultimately, to portray Palmatz as greedy, unconcerned about patient welfare, and in the pocket of wealthy investors.

He has done well financially because the patent on his coronary stent was eventually sold to Johnson and Johnson for millions (and he is interviewed on the grounds of his Napa Valley vineyard).

A recent scholarly analysis of the process of the development of stents differs with this portrayal of Palmatz:

“We found that the first coronary artery stents emerged from three teams: Julio Palmaz and Richard Schatz, Cesare Gianturco and Gary Roubin, and Ulrich Sigwart. First, these individual physician-inventors saw the need for coronary artery stents in their clinical practice. In response, they developed prototypes with the support of academic medical centers leading to early validation studies. Larger companies entered afterwards with engineering support. Patents became paramount once the technology diffused. The case of coronary stents suggests that innovation policy should focus on supporting early physician-inventors at academic centers.”

Although stents ultimately have become over-utilized, they represent a tremendous invention and contribution to cardiac care.

In the setting of acute heart attacks, stents are clearly life saving and thousands of patients have had their clinical angina or claudication greatly relieved when stents are utilized appropriately for blocked coronary and peripheral arteries.

Consequently, Palmatz and many of the other interventional cardiologists who developed and performed early studies on coronary stents are widely considered heroes by the vast majority of knowledgeable cardiologists.

There is no evidence that they have colluded with industry to inappropriately promote stents or to suppress utilization of methods for early diagnosis and prevention of coronary artery disease.

The documentary then switches to characterizing the world of cardiology after stents were approved by the FDA in the early 90s.

There clearly was (and is) an irrational exuberance about stents and some of this sprang from excellent reimbursement for doing the procedures.

The focus moves to Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, and arguably the busiest interventional cardiologist in the world, Samir Sharmin.

The movie implies that Mt. Sinai was going broke until it began performing lots of catheterization and stent procedures. Sharmin who does over 1500 interventions per year and apparently earns over 3 million dollars per year is interviewed and filmed performing a stent procedure.

The average viewer likely gathers from the context of the interview with Sharmin, that he is only doing these procedures to make money.

At various points during the movie, Dr. Steven Nissen, past president of the American College of Cardiology, is interviewed and referred to as “America’s top cardiologist.”

In my opinion, Nissen has been an outstanding, independent voice of reason in the world of cardiology. During the interview, he makes the very valid points that coronary calcium scans have not been embraced for routine usage because there are no outcomes data.

At one point he says, “I don’t like medical cults” in reference to those who support more widespread coronary calcium scans.

The movie leaves the uninformed viewer thinking that Nissen is part of a cabal blocking coronary calcium scans, perhaps due to his connections with industry or an inappropriate resentment of the “calcium club” pushing the scans.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I think Nissen is one of the few prominent cardiologists who are not subject to major bias of one type or another and I strongly respect his opinions.

The movie also attempts to portray the editor of Circulation, a major cardiology journal supported by the American Heart Association as inappropriately withdrawing a paper that would have endorsed coronary calcium scanning. It’s not possible to really tell what the truth is about this withdrawal, but this is a very minor episode in the history of coronary calcium scanning.

Ultimately, The Widowmaker fails its audience in presenting the truth because it desperately wants to convince us that there is a connection between the promotion of coronary stents and the failure of coronary calcium scans to be accepted by guidelines and covered by insurance.

There is no such connection. Many interventional cardiologists are enthusiastic promoters of prevention and aggressive use of coronary calcium scans. I have seen no evidence of greedy interventionists trying to  suppress coronary scans.

In Part II of this analysis, I will take a look at the “heroes” of The Widowmaker, the inventors and promoters of coronary calcium scans, and we will see if they are truly heroic.