Catheterization to “define coronary anatomy”

Gary is an avid jogger. On an average day, he runs 5-6 miles at a good clip. On two occasions recently, however, Gary experienced an ache in his left shoulder at mile 4. It was a toothache-like feeling, but he kept on going without difficulty.

Gary also had a heart scan score of 370.

Upon hearing of Gary’s score and his shoulder sensation, the cardiologist who saw him advised a heart catheterization “to define coronary anatomy”. (This is a real incident.)

What exactly does that mean? Why would Gary’s cardiologist need to define it?

In my view, this is an absurd notion. No one needs to “define coronary anatomy”. This catch-all phrase is commonly used to justify heart procedures. I believe what the cardiologist is saying is that it’s the easiest (for the cardiologist) and perhaps most generously reimbursed method to determine whether Gary’s symptoms are warning of an impending heart attack or not.

The problem is that the question can also be answered quite well by doing a stress test. Though not perfect diagnostic tests, stress tests are useful when symptoms are present that are doubtful in nature. Gary’s left shoulder ache could have been related to his heart, but the likelihood was that it was not. A stress test would have answered the diagnostic question quite adequately.

Instead, this man was subjected to an invasive test that was likely unnecessary. This happens dozens, if not hundreds, of times per day just around here. Nationwide, it is an epidemic of malpractice.

There are, indeed, times when a person should proceed directly to a heart catheterization. This is commonly and appropriately performed when a person develops unstable heart symptoms, such as chest discomfort or breathlessness at rest while not doing anything physical, or if the frequency is increasing, or if a stress test shows an important abnormality. There is no question that heart procedures can be lifesaving at times.

The problem is that thousands of people every year are scared into these procedures inappropriately. Beware!