Tag Archives: echocardiography

How Much Does or Should An Echocardiogram Cost?

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

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

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

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

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

Wide Variations In Equipment, Recording and Interpretation Expertise For Echocardiograms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wildly Differing Charges For Echocardiograms

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

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

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

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

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

Costs Outside the US

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

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

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

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

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

Self Pay Cost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ultrasonically Yours,

-ACP

My Dad’s Heart Murmur and The Botched Echocardiogram

My dad was recently told he had a heart murmur by his internist. An echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart) was ordered.

A heart murmur is basically any unusual sound that the doctor hears when he/she places a stethoscope on the anterior chest  in the vicinity of the heart.  Blood flows across various valves as it makes its way through the cardiac chambers. If the valves are functioning normally we usually can’t hear anything because the blood velocity is low and the flow is not disordered.

The majority of murmurs that are detected are due to either:

(1) narrowing (stenosis) of a valve that results in an acceleration of blood velocity.

(2) failure of a valve to close properly (insufficiency or regurgitation) and prevent back flow.

Cardiologists have developed an absolutely awesome tool for  both visualizing the valves anatomical structure and movement, and precisely measuring the flow of blood through the heart.

The full name of this awesome tool is Doppler-echocardiography. The echocardiogram constructs a moving two-dimensional (more recently three-dimensional) “movie” from analyzing the time and intensity of sound waves reflected off the various valves, walls and structures within the heart.

The Doppler principle is utilized to precisely measure the location and velocity of blood flowing through the heart from high frequency sound waves reflected off red blood cells.

I call this test an echo or TTE (Transthoracic Echocardiogram)

The Importance of Being Expert in Echo Performance and Interpretation

I considered asking him to have the echocardiogram done at my hospital here in St. Louis. I’m the medical director of the laboratory and spend a lot of time making sure that we get high quality echocardiograms and that they are interpreted correctly.

When an echocardiogram is done elsewhere, I have no guarantees that it has been performed and/or interpreted properly.

One would hope that a TTE done in a doctor’s office in Tulsa, Oklahoma and one done in a hospital outpatient facility in St. Louis on the same patient would yield identical results on key findings, but this is often not the case.

On a regular basis, I see serious and highly significant errors made in the findings of TTEs performed elsewhere on patients that come to me for a second opinion or due to moving from another city.

Causes of Errors in Echos

The heart alone, among the body’s organs, is constantly moving. This means that standard ultrasound and x-ray techniques, which work great for static body parts, are useless. The techniques in a modern TTE that have evolved to fully evaluate all of the heart’s highly dynamic functions are complicated and require state-of-the art ultrasound equipment, as well as a sonographer who has been fully and expertly trained in using such equipment.

Such sonographers typically go through a two year program that is specific for cardiac ultrasound. To verify their knowledge and skills, they have a certification from either RDMS or CCT.

Will a competent, registered sonographer perform my dad’s exam? He and I have no way of knowing short of calling up the lab and asking very specific questions.

There is no government or insurance company mandate that a TTE be performed by a qualified, competent sonographer!

This, alone, is quite shocking, but it gets worse.

Who will read my dad’s TTE? Will it be read by a cardiologist trained like me who has gone through an additional year of cardiology training specifically in echocardiography, and who has reached what is termed Level III training?

Does that reading doctor have, like I do, verification of the acquisition and maintenance of the incredibly complicated knowledge base for echocardiography by taking and passing the National board of Echocardiography examinations?

Is he/she keeping up to date on new techniques and scientific findings in the field by attending regular CME sessions?

Does he/she regularly try to correlate the findings from the TTEs he/she reads with findings from other imaging techniques and surgical pathology?

Chances are the answers to all of the above questions will be no.

There is currently no country-wide government or insurance company mandate requiring the reader of a TTE to be competent to get reimbursed!

Thus, we have no guarantees that the TTE on my dad will be competently performed and interpreted.

This sad situation is the cause of the serious and significant errors in TTE results that I regularly encounter.

Dr. Kiran Sagar presented findings confirming this at the 2010 scientific meeting of the American Society of Echocardiography. According to news reports, she was fired shortly afterwards.

The study reported at the ASE meeting involved a review of 235 echocardiograms done at St. Luke’s hospital in Milwaukee, WI (not related at all to my St. Lukes hospital in Chesterfield, MO) from August 2007 to October 2008:

“Of the 35 physicians who performed clinical readings of the echocardiograms reviewed in the study, only three were Level 3 specialists within cardiology.
Sagar’s analysis revealed that 68 of the 235 imaging studies, or 29 percent, were misread.
In at least five of those cases, patients actually went into the operating room with a faulty diagnosis, although the problem was discovered before surgery was done.
In addition, 18 patients were subjected to more invasive echocardiography in which a probe was inserted down the throat and 19 underwent invasive coronary angiography. The misreadings also resulted in increased healthcare costs for the patients”

How Can You Be Sure Your Echo Is Competently Recorded And Interpreted.

I have no good answer to this question.

The only organization that provides any method for evaluation of individual echo labs is the Intersocietal Accreditation Commission. According to the IAC website “The purpose of the IAC Echocardiography accreditation program is “to ensure high quality patient care and to promote health care by providing a mechanism to encourage and recognize the provision of quality echocardiographic diagnostic evaluations by a process of accreditation.””

Echo labs that are accredited by IAC go through a process every three years that insures that they are following the IAC guidelines on acquisition and reporting. This means that the report from an IAC accredited echo lab will comment on all the structures of the heart that should be commented on and will report out basic, rudimentary measurements.

The IAC requires that the medical director of the echo lab have advanced training in echocardiography, but does not require the sonographers who perform the exams to be accredited.

There is no IAC requirement for significant evidence of competence or adequate training for the physicians who read echocardiograms. I quote from their documentation which states that a physician qualifies as a reader:

“if echocardiography training was completed prior to 1998 – three years of echocardiography practice experience and interpretation of at least 1200 echocardiogram/Doppler examinations…”

This type of physician reader does not have to document any significant training or competence, just that he/she has been reading echos for a while and has reached a certain volume.

My Dad’s Echo

We decided to let my dad get his echo done at the facility his primary care physician utilized. It was done at one of the largest hospitals in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I had him obtain both the report and the actual echo recordings for me to review.

The results were quite disappointing as several key elements of the exam were misinterpreted.

As I feared, my dad’s echo was botched.

What Americans Should Demand For Quality and Consistency in Echos

The payers in healthcare should mandate the following if an echo is to be reimbursed:

  • It is performed in an IAC accredited echo laboratory
  • It is performed by a registered sonographer
  • It is interpreted by a cardiologist with advanced training and competence in echocardiography (how advanced and how that is measured or certified can be debated)

Until this kind of quality assurance is tied to reimbursement, it won’t happen voluntarily.

You, as the consumer, have to make sure you are getting the best quality echocardiogram you can.
Ask questions about the lab, the sonographer and the reader who will be doing your exam.
A faulty interpretation of your echocardiogram could result in unnecessary and dangerous testing and surgery.
Failure to identify significant cardiac pathology could delay appropriate treatment.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY!
To my dad, and all you other dads.
May your hearts keep pumping efficiently and may all your tests be interpreted correctly.
-ACP

Shoddy Cardiovascular Screenings Are More Likely to Cause Harm Than Good

I was recently made aware, by one of my patients, of a brochure from one of the large hospital chains in the St. Louis area  that advertised “healthy heart screenings.” The website for this enterprise says the following:

Healthy Heart Screenings

In partnership with Health Fair, SSM Health Care will utilize a mobile clinic that will travel around the St. Louis area approximately 16 times per month. Screenings range from basic biometrics to cardiovascular.

Basic test package ($179) includes:
Echocardiogram Ultrasound
Stroke / Carotid Artery Ultrasound
Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm Ultrasound
Electrocardiogram (EKG)
Peripheral Arterial Disease (PAD) Test
Hardening of the Arteries Test (ASI)

Steven Nissen has discussed the dangers of these types of screenings in an article for Cardiosource.org (the online voice of the American College of Cardiology)  entitled “Screenings and Executive Physicals: Hazardous to Your Health.”

Being proactive about cardiovascular health is generally considered to be a good thing, however, these types of screenings have the potential for doing more harm than good.

First off, individuals should recognize that this service is being offered by hospital systems solely for the purpose of getting more patients into their system for further testing and procedures.

Secondly, the service is being performed by a “mobile clinic.” These types of mobile clinics typically exist to make as much money as they can. Quality control is not one of their goals. They seek high volume , rapid throughput and minimal expenses. The mobile clinic is most likely utilizing the cheapest equipment, technicians  and interpreters of these studies that they can get.

Cheap equipment and inexperienced or poorly trained technicians are more likely to yield studies which are difficult to interpret or introduce errors and artifacts. Artifacts in an imaging study are images which appear to be abnormalities but are not. The more artifacts in a study, the more inappropriate subsequent testing will most likely be performed.

One of the tests offered in this package is an ultrasound of the heart or echocardiogram. The echocardiogram is a brilliant technological development that allows us to image the structure and function of the heart. Abnormalities ranging from weakness in the pump function of the heart to leakage from the valves can very accurately be diagnosed with echocardiography when it is done right.  I have devoted a large part of my career to studying, writing about and insuring quality control in echocardiography and I have seen first hand many misdiagnoses made in the hands of the inexperienced, shoddy, greedy or unscrupulous.

Let’s consider the many ways a poorly done or interpreted echocardiogram can lead to more harm than good.

Overcalling valve problems

In addition to imaging the structure or anatomy of the heart, during an echocardiogram a technique called Doppler allows us to measure the direction, velocity and location of blood flow within the heart. Doppler, developed in the 1980s, allows us, among other things, to see if the heart valves are doing their job of allowing blood to move forward while preventing back flow. In many normal individuals, a small or trivial  amount of back flow (called regurgitation or insufficiency) can be noted. The honest, experienced cardiologist will recognize this as normal. However, if the study is performed ineptly and misread, a normal individual could be mislabeled as having a significant heart valve problem leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety and the potential for additional inappropriate and potentially dangerous testing.

This might seem like just a theoretical concern, but in the 2000s as part of a settlement with the drug company Wyeth, the maker of Fen-Phen, hundreds of thousands of patients who had taken Fen-Phen for weight loss were screened by echocardiography to look for valve problems.  Thousands of individuals with normal hearts were diagnosed with significant valvular problems after undergoing echocardiography examinations set up by the lawyers engaged in the suit. These exams were often done in hotel suites and some cardiologists made millions reading thousands of these in a short period of time. Forbes has a good summary of the scandal entitled the $22 Billion Gold Rush  here. To quote:

“Material misrepresentations” amounting to “pervasive fraud” drove 70% of the serious claims that were found payable by the Wyeth trust fund, says Joseph Kisslo, a court-appointed cardiologist who reviewed a sample of 1,000 echocardiograms in late 2004. “Thousands of people have been defrauded into believing that they have valvular heart disease when in fact they do not,” Kisslo said in a report he wrote for the trust.

I saw a number of patients who had been identified by these shoddy echocardiograms as having significant valve problems and were convinced they had serious heart problems. After I obtained and reviewed the echocardiograms I was able to reassure the patients that their hearts were normal.

Misdiagnosing the function of the heart

The echocardiogram is our premier tool for looking at how the main pumping chamber or left ventricle (LV) is working. A left ventricle that is not functioning properly leads to heart failure. The LV fills with oxygen-rich blood from the lungs when it is relaxed (diastole) and then contracts (systole) and pumps the blood out into the aorta and to the rest of the body. Precise and well-made recordings and measurements of the blood flow during diastole allow the knowledgeable cardiologist to interpret how well the heart is functioning during diastole. Similarly, recordings of the LV allow interpretation of function during systole.

Misinterpretation of both the systolic and diastolic function of the heart are common in echocardiograms that are done by inexperienced sonographers and/or cardiologists.

Misinterpretation of artifacts

Due to various technical factors (outlined in detail here), a normal heart imaged by echocardiography may appear to have an abnormality. These artifacts are more likely due to poor quality equipment and inexperienced or incompetent sonographers. The more experienced the cardiologist reading the study, the less likely that these will be interpreted as pathology.

I have encountered numerous examples of what are normal variations of the heart anatomy or artifacts read on echocardiograms as possible tumors or clots or masses within the heart. Patients invariably end up getting unnecessary testing or surgery when such misdiagnoses are made; they also experience unnecessary stress and worry.

Making Sure You Get a Good Echocardiogram

If you are undergoing an echocardiogram, whether it be for screening which I (and the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology) do not recommend or for an appropriate indication (see here for appropriate indications), then it is in your best interest for you to make sure that the test is done and interpreted optimally.

Ideally, your test is being done by a sonographer who has undergone a recognized training program and is credentialed as a Registered Diagnostic Cardiac Sonographer (RDCS by the American Registry of Diagnostic Sonographers) or a Registered Cardiac Sonographer (RCS by the Cardiovascular Credentialing International).

Your echocardiogram should be done in a facility which has been certified by the Intersociety Accreditation Committee for Echocardiography (ICAEL). This will insure that the equipment, personnel , reports and interpretations are meeting minimal standards and that there is in place an ongoing program of quality assessment.

Your echocardiogram should be interpreted by a cardiologist who has undergone appropriate training in echocardiography and is staying up to date with the latest technology and information in the area. ICAEL certification of the lab will verify this to some extent. Even better, is a cardiologist who is Board Certified in Echocardiography.

In summary, don’t pay for an echocardiogram done by a mobile lab as part of a cardiovascular screening program no matter where it is performed or who is promoting it.  Although you may think you are being proactive about your health, chances are you will be more harmed than helped by the outcome.