Tag Archives: ECG

AliveCor’s Mobile ECG With Kardia Pro Is Eliminating Any Need For Short or Long Term Cadiac Monitors For Most of My Afib patients: A Tale of Four Cardioversions

I described in detail in March (see here) my early experience in utilizing AliveCor’s KardiaMobile ECG  device in conjunction with their Kardia Pro cloud service to monitor my patient’s with atrial fibrillation (afib). Since that post the majority of my new afib patients have acquired the Kardia device and use it regularly to help us monitor their afib.

This capability has revolutionized my management of atrial fibrillation. In those patients who choose to use AliveCor there is really no need for long-term monitors (Holter monitors, Zio patches, cardiac event monitors) and no need for patients to come to the office to get an ECG when they feel they have gone into afib.

When one of my Kardia Pro patients calls with symptoms or concern of afib, I quickly pull up their chart at Kardiapro.com and review their recordings to determine if they are in or out of rhythm. Most treatment decisions can then be handled over the phone without the need for ordering a monitor or an emergency room or office visit.

One 24 hour period will suffice to show how important KardiaPro is now to my management of my patients with afib

A Day In The Afib Life

Tuesdays I spend the day working in the heart station at my hospital. Typically, on these days I will supervise stress tests, read ECGs and echocardiograms, perform TEES and electrical cardioversions. On a recent Tuesday I had 3 patients scheduled for cardioversion of their atrial fibrillation.

The day before one of these patients called indicating that he suspected he had reverted back to normal rhythm (NSR) based on his Kardia readings. He had had a prior cardioversion after which we know (thanks to daily Kardia recordings) he reverted to afib in 5 days. Subsequently we had started him on flecainide, a drug for maintenance of NSR and scheduled him for the cardioversion.

Not uncommonly after starting flecainide patients will convert to NSR but if they don’t we  proceed to an electrical cardioversion.

I logged into KardiaPro and reviewed his dashboard and sure enough his last two ECGs showed sinus rhythm. I congratulated him on this and we canceled his cardioversion for the next day, saving the lab the time and expense of a cancellation the day of the procedure. The patient avoided much stress, time and inconvenience.

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 7.27.49 AM
ECG recordings showing the patient had transitioned from afib (bottom two panels) to NSR (top two panels) after starting flecainide.

It is important to note that in this patient there was no great jump in heart rate with afib compared to NSR. For many patients the rate is much higher with the development of afib and this is often detected by non ECG wearable monitors (like an Apple Watch.)  But for patients like this one, an ECG is the only way to know what the rhythm is.


A second patient with afib who had elected not to acquire an AliveCor ECG device showed up for his cardioversion on Tuesday and after evaluating his rhythm it was clear he had spontaneously reverted back to NSR.  Prior to my adoption of KardiaPro this was a common and scenario.


The third scheduled cardioversion of the day showed up in afib and we successfully cardioverted him back to NSR. I had not addressed utilizing AliveCor with him. Prior to the procedure he asked me about likely outcomes.

My standard response to this question is that we have a 99.9% success rate in converting patients back to NSR at the time of the cardioversion. However, I can’t predict how long you will stay in NSR after the cardioversion. NSR could last for 5 days or it could last for 5 years. Adding medications like flecainide or amiodarone can significantly reduce the risk of afib recurrence after cardioversion.

At this point he asked me “How do I know if I am in afib?” Whereas many afib patients immediately feel bad and are aware that they have gone out of rhythm, this man like many others was not aware.

Prior to AliveCor my answer would have been to check the pulse daily or look for evidence of high or irregular heart rates on BP monitors or fitness wearables. This scenario provided a wonderful opportunity to test the AliveCor’s accuracy at detecting AF in him. I pulled out my trusty AliveCor mobile ECG and prior to the cardioversion we made the recording below

img_0702.jpg

After the cardioversion we repeated the Alivecor recording and the rhythm (AliveCor’s interpretation) had changed from afib  to NSR.

Needless to say, this patient purchased a Kardia device the next day and since the cardioversion he’s made a daily recording which has confirmed NSR. I just logged into Kardia Pro and sure enough he made a recording last night and it showed NSR.


Later in the week I received a call from a patient I had electrically cardioverted a few days earlier. His Kardia device had detected that he had gone back into afib.

I logged into my Mac and saw his KardiaPro chart below.

Kardia Pro displays green dots corresponding to NSR and orange triangles corresponding to afib with 100% accuracy in this patient.

 

 

With perfect precision KardiaPro had verified NSR after the cardioversion lasting for 36 hours. For some reason after dinner the day after the cardioversion, the patient had  reverted back to afib. This knowledge greatly facilitates subsequent treatment and eliminates the need for in office ECGs and long term monitors.


Utilization of the Kardia device with the Kardia Pro monitoring service has proved for me to b a remarkable improvement in the management of patients with afib. Managing non Kardia afib patients feels like navigating a forest with a blindfold.

The improvement is so impressive that I find myself exclaiming to my assistant, Jenny, several times a week “How do other cardiologists intelligently care for afibbers without AliveCor?”

I have a few patients who balk at the 15$ per month charge for Kardia Pro and ask why the device and this monthly charge aren’t covered by insurance or Medicare. Given the dramatic reduction that I have noticed in my use of long-term monitors  as well as  office and ER visits in this population, CMS and third-party insurers would be wise to explore Kardia monitoring as a more cost-effective way of monitoring afib patients.

antifibrillatorily Yours

-ACP

N.B. I realize this post appears to be an unmitigated enthusiastic endorsement of a commercial product which is quite uncharacteristic for the skeptical cardiologist.

One might wonder if the skepcard is somehow biased or compensated for his endorsement of Kardia.

In all honesty, this sprung from my love of the device’s improvement in my afib management and I have received no payment, monetary or otherwise from AliveCor and I own none of their stock (and I’m not even sure if it is on the stock market.)

The New Apple Watch 4: Cardiac Accuracy Unknown, “Game-Changing” Benefits Overblown

On February 10, 2014 AliveCor, Inc. announced that its heavily validated personal  mobile ECG monitor had received FDA over-the counter clearance. Previously the device, which allows recording of a single-lead ECG and, in conjunction with a free smart-phone app, can diagnose atrial fibrillation was only available by prescription.

Since 2013, I have been successfully using this device with my patients who have atrial fibrillation (and writing about it extensively)

Apple COO Jeff Williams standing in front of (presumably) an ECG obtained by Apple Watch 4. It’s OK quality (but smallish p waves). Is that the best they could do? Notice that it is making a diagnosis of sinus rhythm. This PDF can be mailed “to your doctor.”

I was shocked, therefore, to hear the COO of Apple, Jeff Williams, announce that Apple will be offering in its new Apple Watch 4  “the first ECG product offered over the counter directly to consumers.”

This seemed blatantly inaccurate as AliveCor’s device clearly preceded by 4 years Apple’s claim.

Furthermore, AliveCor’s Kardia Band which converts any Apple Watch into a single-lead ECG  (which I’ve written about here and here) has been available and providing the Apple Watch-based ECGs since November 30, 2017.

AliveCor has an outstanding website which documents in detail all the research studies done on their products (there are dozens and dozens of linked papers) and all of their press releases dating back to 2012. It also explains in detail how the product works.

The title of their November 30, 2017 release was  FDA Clears First Medical Device Accessory for Apple Watch®

AliveCor shortly thereafter (December 12, 2017) announced Smart Rhythm , an Apple Watch app that monitors your rhythm and alerts you if it thinks you are in atrial fibrillation. I’ve discussed Smart Rhythm here.

Apple’s Watch will tell you that you are not in atrial fibrillation. Given that we don’t know how accurate it is, should that be reassuring?

The new Apple Watch’s rhythm monitoring app sounds a lot like Smart Rhythm but without any of the documentation AliveCor has provided.

So, within 10 months of Alivecor providing the world with the first ever wearable ECG (and proven its accuracy in afib) Apple seems to have come out with a remarkably similar product.

The major difference between Apple and AliveCor is the total lack of any reviewable data on the accuracy of the Apple device. Yes, that’s right Apple has provided no studies and no data and we have no idea how accurate its ECG device is (or its monitoring algorithm).

For all we know, it could diagnose sinus rhythm with frequent APCS or PVCs consistently as atrial fibrillation, sending thousands of Watch 4 wearers into a panic and overloading the health care system with meaningless alerts.

Apple’s website claims

Apple Watch Series 4 is capable of generating an ECG similar to a single-lead electrocardiogram. It’s a momentous achievement for a wearable device that can provide critical real-time data for doctors and peace of mind for you.

Apple’s “momentous achievement” was actually achieved 10 months earlier by AliveCor and if its monitoring algorithm and ECG system are significantly worse than the proven AliveCor system they will be destroying the peace of mind of users.

Electrodes built into the Digital Crown and the sapphire back crystal allow sensing of cardiac electrical signals. Did Apple get this idea from AliveCor?

After describing the Apple Watch’s new health features, Jeff Williams introduced Ivor Benjamin, MD, the President of the American Heart Association. Benjamin proceeded to describe the new Apple Watch cardiac features as “game-changing”, noting that the AHA is committed to helping patients be “proactive.”

Does  Benjamin have access to the accuracy of the Apple Watch ECG sensor? If so, he and the AHA should immediately share it with the scientific community. If not, by endorsing this feature of the Watch he should be ashamed. Users need to know if he or the AHA was paid any money for this appearance. Also, we should demand to know if (as the prominent AHA logo suggested and news reports implied) the AHA is somehow endorsing the Apple Watch.

Frequent readers know I’m a huge Apple fan but this Apple Watch business makes me think something is rotten in the state of Apple.

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

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

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

I pointed out that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

The Problem of False Positives and False Negatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skeptically Yours,

-ACP

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

 

Review of Kardia Band Mobile ECG for Apple Watch

The skeptical cardiologist has been evaluating the Kardia Band from AliveCor which allows one to record single lead medical grade ECGS on your Apple Watch. What follows is my initial experience with setting up the device and using it to make recordings.

After ordering my Kardia Band for Apple Watch on 11/30  from AliveCor the device appeared on my door step 2 days later on a Saturday giving me most of a Sunday to evaluate it.

What’s In The Box

Inside the box I found one small and one large black rubber wrist watch band

The larger one had had a small squarish silver metallic sensor and the smaller one had a space to insert a sensor. It turns out my wrist required the smaller band and it was very easy to pop out the sensor and pop it into the smaller band.

After replacing my current band with the Kardia band (requires pushing the button just below the band and sliding the old band out then sliding the new one in) I was ready to go.

The Eternal  fiancée did not complain about the appearance of the band so I’m taking that to mean it passes the sufficiently stylish test. She did inquire as to different colors but it appears AliveCor only has one style and one color to choose from right now.

I have had problems with rashes developing with Apple’s rubbery band and switched to a different one but thus far the Kardia band is not causing wrist irritation.

Set UP

I didn’t encounter any directions in the box or online so I clicked on the Kardia app on the watch and the following distressing message appeared.

Prior to 11/30 Kardia Band only worked in certain countries in Europe so I suspected my AliveCor app needed to be updated.

I redownloaded the Kardia app from the Apple App Store , deleted it off my Watch and reinstalled it.

I was thrilled when the app opened up and gave me the following message

However, I was a little puzzled as I was not aware that setting up Smart Rhythm was a requirement to utilize the ECG recording aspect of Kardia Band. Since I have been granted a grandfathered Premium membership by AliveCor I knew that I would have access to Smart Rhythm and went through the process of entering my name and email into the Kardia app to get this started.

Alas, when the Watch Kardia app was accessed after this I continued to get the same screen. Clicking on “need help” revealed the following message:

Bluetooth was clearly on and several attempts to restart both the watch and the iPhone app did not advance the situation.

I sent out pleas for assistance to AliveCor.

At this point the Eternal Fiancee had awoken and we went to Sardella for a delightful brunch . I had this marvelous item:

Eggs Benedict Raviolo, Mortadella, Bread Ricotta, Egg Yolk, Brown Butter Hollandaise, Potatoes 15.
 Later on that day I returned to my Kardia Band iPhone and deinstalled, reinstalled , reloaded and restarted everything.
The First Recording
At this point it worked and I was able to obtain my first recording by pushing the record ECG button and holding my thumb on the sensor for 30 seconds.
I’ve made lots of recordings since then and they are good quality and have accurately recognized that I am in normal sinus rhythm.
The Smart Rhythm component has also been working. Here is a screen shot of today’s graph.
You’l notice that the Smart Rhythm AI gave me a warning sometime in the morning (which I missed) as it felt my rhythm was abnormal. I missed making the recording but am certain that I was not in afib.
Comparison of the Kardia Band recording (on the right) versus the separate Kardia device recording (on left)  shows that they are very similar in terms of the voltage or height of the p waves, QRS complexes and T waves. 
I felt a palpitation earlier and was able to quickly activate the Kardia Watch app and make a recording which revealed a PVC.
 In summary, after some difficulty getting the app to work I am very pleased with the ease of recording, the quality of the recording and the overall performance of Kardia Band. The difficulties I encountered might reflect an early adoption issue which may already be resolved. Please give me feedback on how the device set up worked for you.
I’ll be testing this out on patients with atrial fibrillation and report on how it works in various situations in future posts.
After more experience with the Smart Rhythm monitoring system which I think could be a fantastic breakthrough in personal health monitoring I’ll give a detailed analysis of that feature.
Everwatchingly Yours,
-ACP

Mysterious AliveCor Mobile ECG artifact noted at Commander’s Palace

The skeptical cardiologist was in New Orleans last  weekend. There is no breaking low carb news to report but I did make it to Commander’s Palace for lunch.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 3.18.45 PMThere the eternal fiancée of the skeptical cardiologist (EFOSC)  and I enjoyed delicious food, delightful company (Dave and Barb, who I wrote about last year when they dramatically improved their longevity by tying the knot in The Big Easy) and several oddly colored $0.25  martinis.

barbalivecor
Full disclosure. This was taken during brunch at Broussard’s and is a recreation of the aliveCor recording session at Commander’s Palace. Note the jazz trio in the background who later came by our table and played the St. Louis Blues.

During a lull in the activities I pulled out my iPhone and was asked by the lovely Barb what the funny looking thing stuck on the case was. This necessitated demonstrating my Alivecor mobile ECG device and recording her electrocardiogram.

CPalivecor annotated
The red arrows point to a regular artifact occurring at 200 beats per minute. Toward the end of the recording the artifact goes away and the normal QRS complexes (blue arrows) can be seen clearly.

Strangely enough, the recording was full of an odd artifact.

There was much discussion on the source of the artifact and we repeated the recording having her use her third and fourth fingers on the electrodes instead of the second and third fingers she used the first time.  Same result.

Barb speculated that it was due to the absence of husband Dave who had left the table to use the facilities.

When Dave returned we recorded his ECG and there was no artifact whatsoever.

Screen Shot 2015-10-29 at 3.15.04 PMI repeated the recording on Barb and lo and behold it was now free of artifact.

What was the source of this mysterious ECG artifact noted after an outstanding lunch and multiple 25 cent oddly colored martinis?

High blood alcohol level?

Strange electrical devices being utilized intermittently at Commander’s Palace?

Or perhaps I was recording the actual adverse electrical signals created by the absence of Barb’s devoted spouse, something heretofore not reported.

Further studies are clearly needed to fully define and characterize these waves which I have decided to call Commander’s electromagnetic marriage disruption waves or CEMDW’s.

martinily yours

-ACP

 

 

 

AliveCor Smartphone App Detects Atrial fibrillation: Potential for Stroke Prevention

Atrial fibrillation (AF)  is a common abnormal rhythm of the heart which causes 1 in 4 strokes. Those afflicted with AF may lack any symptoms or only have a vague sense of irregularity of their heartbeat and thus the first symptom of AF can be stroke.

The gold standard for diagnosing AF has long been the electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) and typically the ECG involves placing 12 electrodes on the chest/arm/legs and recording the electrical activity of the heart on an expensive device.

I’ve been checking out a device made by Alive Cor which works with your smart phone to record a single channel ECG and is capable of accurately diagnosing if you are in the normal (sinus) rhythm or in AF.
Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 8.45.49 AMYou can purchase the third generation (significantly smaller then earlier versions) AliveCor Mobile ECG from Amazon or from AliveCor directly for 74.99$ and it works with an app with both iOS and Android devices.

I used mine with my iPhone 6. At first I carried it separately, fearing the added bulk when stuck on to my iPhone case but after a while I realized that it was never with me when I wanted to use it and that there was a huge risk of losing it and so I used the backing adhesive to attach it to my case.

After pairing the device with the app you put two fingers on each of the metal pads and the smartphone screen displays the recording. After 30 seconds of recording it then interprets the rhythm.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 8.56.47 AM
Typical recording in normal sinus rhythm. The red arrow indicates the small p waves which are the electrical signal of the upper chambers (the atria) depolarizing , the blue arrow indicates the electrical depolarization of the ventricles (QRS). The orange arrow indicates that the time interval between the QRS complexes is the nearly the same for each beat, indicating the regularity that we expect when in NSR compared to AF.

Above is a typical recording I made in my office on a patient who had a history of AF. The quality is good and I can clearly see that he is in normal sinus rhythm. The app correctly made the diagnosis of NSR and calculated his heart rate at 68 beats per minute.

One day I had most of my patients record their ECG’s using AliveCor and compared it to the standard 12-lead ECG we normally record. The device correctly identified the two patients with AF out of this group and correctly identified the normals.

Screen Shot 2015-07-12 at 9.26.42 AM
AliveCor recording of patient with AF with heart rate of 70 beats per minute. Note the absence of p waves before the QRS complexes and note the beat to beat variation in the RR interval (orange arrow)

This recording is from a patient with persistent AF which had recurred two weeks earlier. The device correctly identified AF.

Studies have documented that AliveCor Mobile ECG can accurately diagnose AF in a screening setting and the FDA approved the device for AF screening in 2014.

Given the high prevalence of silent AF, the strong association of AF with stroke and the availability of anticoagulants which reduce AF associated stroke by 70%, screening for AF with devices like AliveCor holds the promise of preventing large numbers of stroke.

(For my comments on taking the pulse and stroke prevention see here and on the inadvisability of a routine 12-lead ECG see here)

AliveCor allows physicians utilizing the Mobile APP and ECG to have a “dashboard” into which their patients can transmit their AliveCor ECG recordings.

I will be discussing this remarkable new device with my AF patients  who are smartphone enabled. I think it will advance our ability to more efficiently and quickly diagnose AF in them.

My standard approach if a patient with AF calls and says that they feel like they are out of rhythm is to have them come into the office for a full 12-lead ECG. If they are AliveCor enabled, they could make their own recording, and we could review that remotely and make a diagnosis without the office visit.

Let me know your thoughts on smartphone ECGs.

fibrillatorily yours,

-ACP

Should You Get a Routine Annual Electrocardiogram (ECG)?

Recently, the skeptical cardiologist  was asked by his  old friend and life coach (OFALCSC) whether he was correct to refuse the annual electrocardiogram (ECG) which his primary care doctor had recommended during an annual physical.

ECG showing atrial fibrillation
ECG showing atrial fibrillation

Most of my patients feel that the ECG has the ability to tell me  quite a bit about their heart. The technique utilizes electrodes on the arms, legs and chest region which  record with precision, the depolarization and repolarization of the upper chambers (atria) and lower chamber (ventricles) of the heart.

The ECG is THE tool for assessing the rhythm of the heart.  If performed and interpreted properly (not always a given) it tells us very precisely whether we are in normal (sinus) rhythm, wherein the atria contract synchronously before the ventricles contract, or in an abnormal rhythm. It is also very good at telling us whether you are having a heart attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Problem of False Positives and False Negatives

But all testing has the potential for negative consequences because of the problem of false positives and negatives. To give just one example: ECGs in people with totally normal hearts are regularly interpreted as showing a prior heart attack. This is a false positive. The test is positive (abnormal) but the person does not have the disease. At this point, more testing is likely to be ordered; specifically, a stress test. Stress tests in low risk, asymptomatic individuals often result in false positive results. After a false positive stress test, it is highly likely that a catheterization will be ordered. This test carries potential risks of kidney failure, heart attack, stroke and death. It is bad enough that the cascade of testing initiated by an abnormal, false positive,  screening test results in unnecessary radiation, expense and bother but  in some cases it end up killing patients rather than saving lives.

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

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

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

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