Hospital Administrators' Wish List

I've known enough hospital administrators over the years to understand what most of them want.

Of course, most of them want to deliver high quality care to patients in a safe, efficient setting. They want to comply with national standards of performance, attract quality physicians to use their facilities, and appeal to patients as a desirable place to obtain care.

But one fact is hard for many administrators to ignore: 30% of a hospital's revenues and 50% of their profits come from heart services.

So, if your hospital administrator had a wish list, I believe that among their wishes would be:

--More heart catheterizations, angioplasties, stents, and bypass surgery.
--More pacemaker and defibrillator implantations.
--More heart attacks.
--More heart failure with need for intravenous infusions, defibrillators, and bi-ventricular pacemaker implantations.
--More heart valve surgery.

Highly successful hospitals do more of these procedures than less successful hospitals.

Are you getting the picture? Heart care is a business. It's not very different than Target, Home Depot, or McDonalds--businesses eager to sell more of their product. Yes, there is attention to detail, quality, and competitiveness, but the bottom line is "sell more product, make more profit."

Keep this in mind the next time you catch one of the many TV or newspaper ads, radio spots, physician "interviews", or other media pitches in your town. Does Target run ads for the public good or to generate profitable sales? Does your hospital run ads to broadcast its contribution to public welfare or to generate profitable "sales"? Pretty clear, isn't it?

Poor, neglected vitamin D!

We now routinely check blood levels of vitamin D in all our patients. I am reminded everyday that, if you're a resident of a northern climate (as we are in Wisconsin and similarly in Michigan, Washington, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, etc.), the overwhelming likelihood is that you are deficient in vitamin D. And not just a little deficient, but severely deficient.

As humans, we're meant to obtain vitamin D through exposure to sunlight. This was how humans evolved. We are all ill-equipped to get vitamin D through nutritional sources. The average (Wisconsin) patient we see has vitamin D blood levels of 17-30 ng/dl. Most authorities would agree that a level of 30 ng or less would constitute severe deficiency. An ideal level is probably around 50 ng, what many (but not all) residents of southern climates like Florida, Texas, and Hawaii have if they get frequent sun exposure.

When vitamin D levels are normal, bone health is maximized (inhibiting osteoporosis); prostate, uterine, breast, and colon health is heightened and cancer risk diminished; pre-diabetic and diabetic patterns are suppressed and blood sugar reduced; blood pressure drops 10 mgHg, on average;and inflammatory measures like C-reactive protein are substantialy reduced. But, of greatest interest to us, coronary plaque is easier to regress.

Although our experience in the last several hundred people is still anecdotal, I believe that I'm seeing a dramatic increase in the amount and rapidity of coronary plaque regression. People we've struggled with are suddenly regressing. People with higher heart scan scores (e.g., >500) are regressing more readily.

We're accumulating our data and it will take a couple more years to develop it in a scientifically-useful format. But, in the meantime, adding vitamin D to your program or having your vitamin D level checked may be among the most important steps you can take to gain control over coronary plaque. Be sure to ask your doctor to get the right blood test: it must be 25-OH-vitamin D3. (The wrong test is the 1,25-OH2-vitamin D3; though they look and sound the same, they measure very different parts of the vitamin D pathway.) Also, Track Your Plaque members: read Dr. John Cannell's tremendous summary of the vitamin D experience on the Track Your Plaque website.

Leave the greatest legacy to your children

Phyllis was dumbfounded when she learned of her heart scan score of 995. At age 56, this placed her solidly in the 99th percentile--a score that grouped her with the worst 1% of scores for women her age. Track Your Plaque followers know that scores of 1000 (just days away, given the expected 30% increase in score per year!) pose a risk of heart attack, symptoms leading to stent or bypass, or death of 25% per year.

But after Phyllis gathered her thoughts and thought it over, her first question was "What about my children?"

A natural response for a mother. Phyllis' "children" actually ranged in age from 26 to 37. We talked about how, given her high score, she'd probably been creating plaque in her coronary arteries for 20 years. This triggered her mother's concern for her kids.

This is probably the #1 most useful lesson for all of us. If we learn of our own risk for heart disease, we can pass our concerns on to our children. Imagine how much more well-equipped you could be if you started out with the advice and experience of a parent who'd identified and then conquered their heart disease risk.

Pass your awareness and knowledge on to your children, particularly if they are 30 years old or more.

Interestingly, my own personal experience with my 14-year old son taught me a lesson or two. I had previously assumed that, at age 14, how could he be even remotely interested in these issues? (I have a terrible family history of heart disease and I have a high heart scan score myself.) When my son asked that we check his lipid values (I talk about this more than I'd like to admit!), we did a fingerstick lipid panel in my office. Lo and behold, his HDL (good) cholesterol was a shocking 31 mg--exceptionally low for a teenager. His risk for heart disease over the long-term is very high.

Much to my surprise, this awareness has triggered a genuine interest in healthy eating. It's not uncommon to see him examine food labels and to report to me that "Hey, Dad. Can you believe that this yogurt has 43 grams of carbohydrates?"

Pass on the lessons you've learned to your children and to the important people in your life. This is probably the most crucial lesson you can take from the Track Your Plaque experience.

Half effort will get you half results

Greg walked into the office.

"Just back from a 10-day Caribbean cruise, Doc. It was fabulous."

"Yes, but I see you're 14 lbs heavier. What happened?"

"Well, you know, a 24-hour a day open brunch. Anything and everything you wanted. But I only had dessert twice."

"Did you exercise?"

"Come on, Doc! It was vacation!"

With this serious indiscretion, Greg gained 14 lbs in 10 days. That's a total surplus of 49,000 calories Greg put in his body over that period. 49,000!

Greg had started the cruise 40 lbs overweight. Now, he's 54 lbs overweight. The pre-diabetic tendency he showed earlier was now full diabetes. All associated lipoproteins blossomed with it--small LDL, a drop in HDL of 5 points, triglycerides skyrocketing to 320.

He blew it.

Can Greg turn back? Yes, he most likely can, given a serious and rapid effort to lose the weight he gained on the cruise and more.

But can he do it? I doubt it.

Someone who allows himself to gain an extraordinary quantity of weight, completely neglects exercise, then blows it off as having some fun will never succeed.

In all honesty, this is someone who shouldn't waste his time in the Track Your Plaque program. He will fail--period. By failure I mean he will experience explosive plaque growth over the next few years and then end up with stent(s), heart attack, bypass surgery. Some people will die. He will also--should he survive--experience the long-term complications of diabetes, such as retinal disease, kidney impairment, loss of sensation to his feet and legs, and on and on. His life will be substantially abbreviated.

To me, there's no choice. But Greg and many people like him are fooling themselves if they believe that a half-hearted effort will allow them to succeed in controlling or reversing heart disease. Maybe we'll come up with some magic supplement or prescription medication that will erase his heart disease in a few days.

Don't count on it. I'll make no bones about it. Controlling and reversing heart disease requires a commitment--a full commitment to eat and live healthy, to follow the advice we give, and not engage in serious indiscretions that erode your efforts. If you believe that taking 40 mg of Lipitor is all you're going to need to regress heart disease, plan on your first stent or heart attack within a few years. And you'll hobble to the doctor's office in the meantime.

Stents, defibrillators, and other profit-making opportunities

As a practicing cardiologst, every day I receive a dozen or more magazines or newspapers targeting practicing physicians, not to mention the hundreds of letters, postcards, invitations to "talks", etc. that I receive. All of these materials share one common goal: To get the practicing cardiologist/physician to insert more of a manufacturer's stents, defibrillators, prescribe more of their drugs, etc.

This is a highly effective and profitable area. Pfizer's Lipitor, for instance, generated $12.2 billion just last year alone. This kind of money will fund an extraordinary amount of marketing.

I'm on the mailing list, a website for cardiologists. I'd estimate that 90% or more of their content is device-related: discussions of situations in which to insert stents, the expanding world of implantable devices, the ups and downs of various drugs. Rarely are discussions of healthy lifestyles, exercise, nutritional supplements, part of the dialogue.

How can you protect yourself from the brainwashed physician, flooded with visions of all the devices he can put in you, all the drugs that can "cure" your disease? Simple: information. Be better informed. Ask pointed questions. The idiotic lay press tells you to ask a doctor about his education. That's not generally the problem. Some of the best educated doc's I know are also the most flagrantly guilty of profiteering medicine.

Ask your doctor about his/her philosphy about the use of medications, devices, etc. If their word is God, take it or leave it, run the other way.

Will radiation kill you?

Several people have asked me lately if radiation is truly dangerous. These conversations were sparked by an editorial comment made on a column I wrote for Life Extension Magazine's April, 2006 issue on "Three ways to detect hidden heart disease".

Among the methods that were discussed in this piece was, of course, CT heart scanning. Anyone who is involved with CT heart scans Quickly recognizes the spectacular power of this test to uncover hidden, unsuspected heart disease, literally within seconds. In 2006, there's really nothing like it for the every day person to have hidden heart disease detected and precisely quantified.

Yet, the "rebuttal" to my article claimed that the broad use of heart scans was only my personal view and that, in truth, radiation kills people.

NONSENSE! If an ovarian cancer is discovered by a CT scan of the abdomen, is that unwise use of radiation? If pneumonia or lung cancer is discovered on a chest x-ray with minimal radiation exposure, have we performed a disservice. Of course not. In fact, these are often lifesaving applications of radiation.

Can radiation be used unwisely with excessive exposure? Of course. The 64 slice CT angiograms are just an example of this. Dr. Mehmet Oz announced on Oprah recently that this was a test to be used for broad screening of women for heart disease. This is wrong. The radiation required for a full 64 slice CT angiogram test is truly excessive for a screening application. You wouln't want to get breast cancer from your mammogram, would you? The radiation from a 64-slice CT angiogram is similar to that of a heart catheterization in the hospital--too much for screening. This is not to be confused with a CT heart scan for a calcium score performed on a 64 slice device. I think this can be performed with acceptable radiation exposure.

Think about what would happen, for instance, if you had your heart disease undetected, had a heart attack, and went to the hospital? During your hospitalization, you'd likely get five chest x-rays, a heart catheterization, perhaps one or more nuclear imaging tests, maybe even a full CT scan (with far more radiation than a screening heart scan). The amount of radiation of a heart scan is trivial compared to what you obtain in a hospital.

So take it all in perspective. The low level of radiation required for a simple heart scan (not an angiogram) does not by itself substantially add to your lifetime risk of radiation exposure. It may, in fact, save your life or reduce your life long exposure to radiation.

Are you using bogus supplements?

I consider nutritional supplements an important, many times a critical,part of a coronary plaque control program.

But use the wrong brand or use it in the wrong way, and you can obtain no benefit. Occasionally, you can even suffer adverse effects.

Take coenzyme Q10, for instance. (Track Your Plaque Members: A full, in-depth Special Report on coenzyme Q10 will be on the website in the next couple of weeks.) Take the wrong brand to minimize the likelihood of statin-related muscle aches, and you may find taking Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor, etc. intolerable or impossible. However, take a 100 mg preparation from a trusted manufacturer in an oil-based capsule, and you are far more likely to avoid the inevitable muscle aches. (Though, of course, consult with your doctor, for all it's worth, if you develop muscle aches on any of these prescription agents.)

Unfortunately, you and I often don't truly know for a fact if a bottle from the shelf of a health food store or drugstore is accurately labeled, pure, free of contaminants, and efficacious.

One really great service for people serious about supplements is the website. They are a membership website (with dues very reasonable) started by a physician interested in ensuring supplement quality. Consumer Lab tests nutritional supplements to determine whether it 1) contains what the label claims, and 2) is free of contamination. (I have no reason to pitch this or any other site; it's just a great service.) They recently found a supplement with Dr. Andrew Weil's name on it to have excess quantities of lead!

What Consumer Lab does not do is determine efficacy. In other words, they do a responsible job of reporting on what clinical studies have been performed to support the use of a specific supplement. However, true claims of efficacy of supplement X to treat symptom or disease Y can only come with FDA approval. Supplements rarely will be put through the financial rigors of this process.

If you're not a serious supplement user, but just need a reliable source, we've had good experiences with:

--GNC--the national chain
--Vitamin Shoppe--also a national chain or great and low-priced source, but they do charge a $75 annual membership that comes with a subscription to their magazine, Life Extension (which I frequently write for) and several free supplements that you may or may not need. Again, I'm not pitching them; they are simply a good source.
--Solgar--a major manufacturer
--Vitamin World
--Nature's Bounty

There are many others, as well. Unfortunately, it's only the occasional manufacturer or distributor that permits unnacceptable contamination with lead or other poisons, or inaccurately labels their supplement (e.g., contains 1000 mg of glucosamine when it really contains 200 mg). I have not come across any manufacturer/distributor who has systemtically marketed uniformly bad products.

It really helps to have someone to lean on

Among my patients are several husband and wife teams, both of whom have heart disease by some measure. Several couples, for instance, consist of a huband who's received a stent, survived a heart attack, or has some other scar of the conventional approach. The wives generally have a substantial heart scan score in the several hundred range.

There are a few couples for which the roles are reversed: wife with bypass, heart attack, etc. and husband with a substantial quantity of coronary plaque by CT heart scan.

From them all, however, I've learned the power of teamwork. When both wife and husband (or even "significant other") are committed to the effort of controlling or reversing heart disease risk, the likelihood of success is magnified many-fold. Everything is easier: shopping for and choosing foods, incorporating supplements in the budget, taking vacations with a healthy focus, following through and sticking with your program.

Several of the couples have succeeded in obtaining regression of plaque for both man and woman. Both have reduced their heart scan scores and, as a result, dramatically reduced the potential for future heart attack and procedures.

Unfortunately, I will also see the opposite situation: One spouse committed to the program but the other indifferent. They may say such things as "You can't control what happens in the future." Or, "There's no way you can get rid of risk for heart disease. My doctor says it's hereditary." Or, "I've eaten this way since I was a kid. I'm not changing now for you or for anybody else."

Such negative commentary can't help but erode your commitment to health. Most of us recognize these sorts of comments as self-fulfulling and self-defeating.

What should you do if you have an unsupportive partner? Not easy. But it really can help to seek out a supportive partner, whether it's a friend, relative, or other significant person in your life. Of course, not everybody can find such a person. Perhaps that's another way our program can help.

I'd like to hear from anyone who does obtain substantial support of someone close, or if you are struggling to do so.

Five foods that can booby trap your heart disease prevention program

There are several foods that commonly come up on people's lists of habitual foods that are truly undesirable for a heart disease prevention program. Curiously, people choose these foods because of the mis-perception that they are healthy. My patients are often shocked when I tell them that they are not healthy and are, in fact, detrimental to their program.

I'm not talking about foods that are obviously unhealthy. You know these: fried foods, greasy cheeseburgers, French fries, bacon, sausage, etc. Nearly everyone knows that the high saturated fat content, low fiber, and low nutritional value of these foods are behind heart disease, hypertension, and a variety of cancers.

I'm talking about foods that people say they eat because they view them as healthy--but they're not.

Here's the list:

1) Low-fat or non-fat salad dressings--Virtually all brands we've examined have high-fructose corn syrup as one the main ingredients. What does high fructose corn syrup do? Triggers sugar cravings, makes your triglycerides skyrocket (causing formation of abnormal lipoproteins like small LDL), and causes diabetes. The average American now ingests nearly 80 lbs of this evil sweetener per year. You're far better off with olive, canol, grapeseed, or flaxseed based salad dressings.

2) Breakfast cereals--If you've been following these discussions, you know that the majority of breakfast cereals are sugar. They may not actually contain sugar, but they contain ingredients that are converted to sugar in your body. They may be cleverly disguised as healthy--Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, etc.

3) Pretzels--"A low-fat snack". That's right. A low-fat snack that raises blood sugar like eating table sugar from the bowl.

4) Margarine--Forget this silly argument about which is worse, butter or margarine. Which is worse, strychnine or lead? Both are poisons to the human body. Who cares which is worse? Fortunately, there are now healthy "margarines" like Smart Balance and Benecol that lack the saturated fat or hydrogenated fat of either.

4) Bananas--Bananas are not all that intrinsically unhealthy. The problem is that people will say to me, "Oh sure, I eat fruit. Two bananas a day." What I hear is "I don't really eat fruit with high nutrient value, fiber, and reduced sugar release. I reach for only bananas which yield extreme sugar rises in my blood and are low fiber." Aren't they high in potassium? Yes, but there are better sources. Cut back if you are a banana freak.

Why the mis-perceptions? A holdover from the low-fat diet days and marketing from food manufacturers are the principal reasons. Of course, foods are meant to be enjoyed, but be informed about it. Choose foods for the right reasons, not because of some cleverly-crafted marketing campaign.

Breakfast of champions?

I spend time every day educating or reminding patients that breakfast cereals are not health foods.

I see jaws drop in shock when I tell them that, in my opinion and despite the marketing claims, Cheerios, Raisin Bran, Shredded Wheat, and the like do not yield health benefits. In fact, they do the the opposite: dramatically raise blood sugar and trigger an adverse cascade of events that eventually leads to diabetes and heart disease.

Why the health claims in advertising? Because these products contain insoluble fiber, the sort that makes your bowels regular. Yes, your bowels are important to health, too. But the benefits end there.

Breakfast cereals are a highly refined, processed food that are not good for your plaque control program. What they are is a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar business, deeply entrenched in American culture ("They'rrrre grrrrrreat!"--Tony the Tiger; "There's a whole scoop of raisins in every box of Post Raisin Bran!" Bet you remember them all.)

I find it particularly upsetting when I see the stamp of approval from the American Heart Association on some products. Gee, if the Heart Association says it's good for you, it must be true! Don't you believe it. The American Heart Association relies on corporate donations, just like any other charity.

If you must eat breakfast cereals, refer to for a full database of glycemic indexes. You can look up a specific product and it will list its glycemic index, or sugar-releasing properties. You should try to keep glycemic index of the foods you choose below 50.

For a revealing discussion of the influence of food marketers on our perceptions of food, see Track Your Plaque nutrition expert, Gay Riley's discussion The Marketing of Food and Diets in America at her website,