It’s too soon to tell whether former President George W. Bush’s stent to open his coronary artery will change how Americans receive cardiovascular care, but I certainly have my worries. If the argument to aggressively search for cardiac disease in asymptomatic people wins out, I see my healthcare premiums rising precipitously and continuing in that direction. It’s not just the premiums either, but putting healthy people into this perennial-patient or at-risk status for no good reason.
I don’t want to live in a world where we speak of how elevated each of our risk status is for cardiovascular disease, a stroke, or heart attack, as if it is a badge of courage. I learned recently that I have only a 4% risk of having a heart attack or stroke in the next ten years, apparently strong enough for my primary care physician to recommend a statin to lower my risk even further.
A month ago, I went for a routine physical at my primary care physician’s office. I got recommended immunizations, but there were aspects of the visit that troubled me. Once you are in a gown sitting at the exam table, you are fair game for consenting to a procedure right there, on the spot. How stupid I was not to pull out my smartphone to check whether a test was warranted. My doctor had moved from an academic medical center to open a new group practice.
Cardiovascular Testing Flourishing
I got hornswoggled into a carotid ultrasound test. The test evaluates blockages in your neck. What led to this test was my admission after persistent questioning (I am really well) that I very occasionally feel dizzy. Suddenly, the specter of a looming stroke was in the cards, perhaps a blockage in my neck. My blood pressure was 120/80 in both arms. When I asked the technician performing the test why it was being done, she said: “to prevent a stroke.” Now who would want to have a disabling stroke? It was a compelling argument on the surface.
Other contributing factors that were too daunting to address was the fact that a cardiologist sat in the office and owned the equipment. Who needs a fight with my doctor over whether the test is warranted and might be motivated by a conflict of interest? At another physician practice, on a rainy day, I once was offered a stress EKG, because: “He’s got the time. He had some cancellations because of the rain today.” The rationale: it was a few months after my mother died. I had occasional pounding in my chest.
Had I pulled out my smartphone and looked at the American Board of Internal Medicine Foundation Choosing Wisely site or a handful of other sites either time, I would have immediately learned that a carotid ultrasound test or stress EKG was unwarranted. I recommend readers bookmark this site and challenge their doctors before undergoing tests like these. It is a valuable reference. I should have known better. (Note: at press time, the link on the website was broken. It will be inserted as soon as ABIM Foundation fixes it.)
With my insurance, I only got stuck with a relatively small copay, but what would happen if everyone who walked in the door was seen unwittingly as a candidate for this procedure, stress EKGs, and more? Make no mistake about it, it’s happening. You tolerate it, fellow Americans, you are going to have to pay for it. Don’t be surprised if your premiums go up and if healthcare costs wipe you out. I may not pay for this kind of test this year, but it won’t be long before the economists make sure Americans fork out for these tests.
Oddly enough, when I returned home, in my mailbox, I found a glossy, oversize postcard from a teaching hospital touting its cardiovascular disease prevention program. They are popping up everywhere, offering a potpourri of risk assessment for heart attacks, strokes, and vascular disease, risk factor identification, treatment programs to reduce risk factors, secondary prevention, and screening before starting sports and exercise programs.
I don’t think that Bush was needed to propel overuse of cardiovascular procedures further over the top. It has been well on its way, but Bush’s stent underscores the trend. In this blog, in many posts, I have pointed to the numerous ways overuse is hazardous for your health, financial wellbeing, and more. It will be up to those concerned with overuse to devise new strategies to stop this train. Right now, it seems unstoppable.