"Yes, Johnnie, there really is an Easter bunny"

A Heart Scan Blog reader recently posted this comment:

You wouldn't believe the trouble I'm having trying to get someone to give me a CT Heart Scan without trying to talk me into a Coronary CTA [CT angiogram]. Every facility I've talked to keeps harping on the issue that calcium scoring only shows "hard" plaque...and not soft.

I also had a nurse today tell me that 30% of the people that end up needing a coronary catheterization had calcium scores of ZERO. That doesn't sound right to me. What determines whether or not someone needs a coronary catheterization anyway?

There was a time not long ago when I saw heart scan centers as the emerging champions of heart disease detection and prevention. Heart scans, after all, provided the only rational means to directly uncover hidden coronary plaque. They also offered a method of tracking progression--or regression--of coronary plaque. No other tool can do that. Carotid ultrasound (IMT)? Indirectly and imperfectly, since it measures thickening of the carotid artery lining, partially removed from the influences that create coronary atherosclerotic plaque. Cholesterol? A miserable failure for a whole host of reasons.

Then something happened. General Electric bought the developer and manufacturer of the electron-beam tomography CT scanner, Imatron. (Initial press releases were glowing: The Future of Electron Beam Tomography Looks Better than Ever.The new eSpeed C300 electron beam tomographic scanner features the industry’s fastest temporal resolution, and is now backed by the strength of GE Medical Systems. Imatron and GE have joined forces to provide comprehensive solutions for entrepreneurs and innovative medical practitioners.)

Within short order, GE scrapped the entire company and program, despite the development of an extraordinary device, the C-300, introduced in 2001, and the eSpeed, introduced in 2003, both yanked by GE. The C-300 and eSpeed were technological marvels, providing heart scans at incredible speed with minimal radiation.

Why would GE do such a thing, buy Imatron and its patent rights, along with the fabulous new eSpeed device, then dissolve the company that developed the technology and scrap the entire package?

Well, first of all they can afford to, whether or not the device represented a technological advancement. Second (and this is my reading-between-the-lines interpretation of the events), it was in their best financial interest. Not in the interest of the public's health, nor the technology of heart scanning, but they believed that focusing on the multi-detector technology to be more financially rewarding to GE.

GE, along with Toshiba, Siemens, and Philips, saw the dollar signs of big money with the innovations in multi-detector technology (MDCT). They began to envision a broader acceptance of these devices into mainstream practice with the technological improvements in CT angiography, a device (or several) in every hospital and major clinic.

Anyway, this represents a long and winding return to the original issue: How I once believed that heart scan centers would be champions of heart disease detection and reversal. This has, unfortunately, not proven to be true.

Yes, there are heart scan centers where you can obtain a heart scan and also connect with people and physicians who believe in prevention of this disease. I believe that Milwaukee Heart Scan is that way, as is Dr. Bill Blanchet's Front Range Preventive Imaging, Dr. Roger White's Holistica Hawaii, and Dr. John Rumberger's Princeton Longevity Center.

But the truth is that most heart scan centers have evolved into places that offer heart scans, but more as grudging lip service to the concept of early detection earned with sweat and tears by the early efforts of the heart scan centers. But the more financially rewarding offering of CT coronary angiograms, while a useful service when used properly, has corrupted the prevention and reversal equation. "Entry level" CT heart scans have been subverted in the quest for profit.

CT angiograms pay better: $1800-4000, compared to $100-500 for a heart scan (usually about $250). More importantly, who can resist the detection of a "suspicious" 50% blockage that might benefit from the "real" test, a heart catheterization? Can anyone honestly allow a 50% blockage to be without a stent?

CT angiograms not only yield more revenue, they also serve as an effective prelude to "downstream" revenue. By this equation, a CT angiogram easily becomes a $40,000 hospital procedure with a stent or two, or three, or occasionally a $100,000 bypass. Keep in mind that the majority of people who are persuaded that a simple heart scans are not good enough and would be better off with the "superior" test of CT angiography are asymptomatic--without symptoms of chest pain, breathelessness, etc. Thus, the argument is that people without symptoms, usually with normal stress tests, benefit from prophylactic revascularization procedures like stents and bypass.

There are no data whatsoever to support this practice. People who have no symptoms attributable to heart disease and have normal stress tests do NOT benefit from heart procedures like heart catheterization. They do, of course, benefit from asking why they have atherosclerotic plaque in the first place, followed by a preventive program to correct the causes.

So, beware: It is the heart scan I believe in, a technique involving low radiation and low revenue potential. CT angiograms are useful tests, but often offered for the wrong reasons. If we all keep in mind that the economics of testing more often than not determine what is being told to us, then it all makes sense. If you want a simple heart scan, just say so. No--insist on it.

Take trust out of the equation. Don't trust people in health care anymore than you'd trust the used car salesman with "a great deal."

Finally, in answer to the reader's last comment about 30% of people needing heart catheterizations having zero calcium scores, this is absolute unadulterated nonsense. I'm hoping that the nurse who said this was taken out of context. Her comments are, at best, misleading. That's why I conduct this Heart Scan Blog and our website, www.cureality.com. They are your unbiased sources of information on what is true, honest, and not tainted by the smell of lots of procedural revenue.

Comments (13) -

  • Anonymous

    11/30/2007 8:13:00 AM |

    Hmmn - reminds me of a book I read called "Coronary: A True Story of Medicine Gone Awry," recommended by you, Dr. Davis.  Unnecessary procedures for profits.

    It's a scary world out there in medical land.

  • Anne

    11/30/2007 12:35:00 PM |

    The local heart hospital has a "Heartsaver CT" http://www.heartsaverct.com/index.aspx?CORE_ElementID=HSCT_AHH_Home

    Is this the same as the CT Heart Scan?

  • Anonymous

    11/30/2007 1:11:00 PM |

    I saw another car Bill had worked on this month.  My father and I have an auto hobby shop were we'll bang away on making our own hot rod cars and from time to time a friend or friend of a friend in this case will ask to bring a car by for inspection.  The guy has been having many problems with his hot rod and for repairs had been taking it to Bill's place.  I had an idea of what to expect.  Sure enough Bill had done it again.  Bill's scam is that he will splice a weaker gage wire into a hidden unseen area.  The weak gage can not handle the power load for long and once the wire melts and the part stops working, he explains that the engine part broke, new parts need to be ordered and of course that intales hours of labor costs.  

    After reading this blog it reminded me of scammer auto shops.  Hospitals have their scams too.    I wish I could walk into a doctor’s office and expect that only the best, least expensive, treatment will be offered me - but I now know that isn't the case.  I can't be lazy.  I need to educate myself in the basics of medical care to ensure I receive the best treatment for me.  Thanks for being a good teacher Dr. Davis.

  • Dr. Davis

    11/30/2007 1:23:00 PM |

    Yes, it looks like it is the real thing, a simple heart scan, judging from their comment that "There are no needles, no dyes, no injections and no exercise." CT angiograms require needles, dye, and injections.

  • Mike

    11/30/2007 3:27:00 PM |

    The CT angiogram makers are generating lots of reports on how great their machines are.


  • Dr. Davis

    11/30/2007 3:41:00 PM |

    They certainly are. Big bucks, big marketing.

    I do believe, in all honesty, that the new devices really represent great advances in diagnostic imaging. It's their mis-use and over-use that I object to. Of course, the manufacturers keep their lips closed about it because overuse drives more sales.

  • Paul Kelly - 95.1 WAYV

    11/30/2007 5:00:00 PM |

    Hi Dr. Davis,

    I've learned from reading your blog that typically 20% of TOTAL PLAQUE is calcified or "hard". Is that a steadfast rule - or is that an average? What if someone has a calcium score of zero (or close to it)? Can it be assume that that person also has very little in the way of "soft" plaque?



  • Dr. Davis

    11/30/2007 5:12:00 PM |

    Speaking generally, people with zero heart scan scores have heart attack rates of near zero (if asymptomatic).

    The likelihood of detecting pure "soft" plaque in someone without symptoms and a zero heart scan score is <5%. It does happen, particularly when certain severe risks for heart disease are present (e.g., very high LDL/small LDL). It is exceptional, however.

  • noreen

    12/1/2007 12:55:00 AM |

    Since I can't afford the current local price of a 64 slice CT scan ($1100), I've decided to get a lipoprotein breakdown to determine my risk.   I can use your "treatment" protocol of supplements to try and achieve the 60-60-60 values when I see the results.   Is this a good plan?

  • Dr. Davis

    12/1/2007 1:47:00 PM |

    Hi, Noreen--

    I'm afraid that you may regret not getting the scan a few years from now. After you've successfully corrected lipoproteins, you may want to know if you've also successfully controlled plaque growth, the MORE IMPORTANT parameter.

    Have you thought about looking elsewhere for a scan? In Milwaukee, for instance, scans can be obtained for as little as $79. (Though the low-priced scans also come with a sales pitch for CT coronary angiography. Just say "no thanks.")

  • mike V

    12/1/2007 8:49:00 PM |

    I am 72 and pretty healthy.
    This year I have been seeing a cardio because of some nocturnal palpitations. He has subjected me to a series of tests-sleep-ultrasound-both negative, and a nuclear stress test which gave a hint of possible blockage. He recommended either an angiography or a CTA scan. I chose the latter, and was rated "normal".
    I asked if this meant normal for my age. He said "no, normal for any age, I couldn' find any trace of hard or soft plaque". Yes he is part of a large group.

    My father died of a second heart attack at 76.
    I have taken vitamin D, fish oil, magnesium, pantethine, flaxseed, co-Q10, lutein, olive oil, for some years.
    I am trying hard not to feel smug, but should I feel safe?
    We are still working on the nocturnal palpitations which seem to be dependent on sleep position.
    I have bradycardia, and no other obvious health 'problems'.

  • Harry35

    12/2/2007 12:30:00 AM |

    With regard to the 20% value for calcified plaque, if you look at figure 1 from Rumberger’s classic 1995 paper (Circulation. 1995;92:2157-2162.), it shows the plaque area and calcium areas for each of 13 hearts that were examined on autopsy. If you take the points in this graph and determine the areas for each heart, the data shows that the calcium area and calcium percentage increases with plaque area. Unfortunately the paper doesn’t say what the calcium scores were for each heart, only the calcium areas and total plaque areas. However, over the range of plaque areas of the 13 hearts, the percentage of calcium in plaque increased from 0% to 14% for the 9 hearts with with plaque areas less than 150 square mm to 14% to 28% for the hearts with the plaque areas greater than 230 square mm. So from that we can conclude that the 20% value is an average, and that the calcium percentage increases as more and more plaque accumulates.


  • Anonymous

    3/5/2010 5:20:16 PM |

    Sehr interessant!