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Study Finds Many Patients Undergo Unnecessary Heart Testing



Heart disease currently ranks as the leading cause of death of both men and women in the United States, with 600,000 people dying each year from the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The most lethal form of the disease, coronary heart disease, accounts for 385,000 deaths annually, and every year approximately 715,000 Americans suffer a heart attack.

Considering the toll heart disease takes on both the health and finances of the nation- the CDC estimates that coronary heart disease alone costs the U.S. nearly $109 billion annually- it’s little wonder that doctors and patients have taken a special interest in the current state of their heart health. However, a new study suggests that many patients undergo unnecessary heart exams that provide them with little benefit.

According to researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, a large number of patients undergo routine echocardiograms, a noninvasive ultrasound test that shows how well the heart is functioning, but never see any change in their treatment following the exam. Therefore, these types of exams don’t actually serve any clinical purpose, according to researchers.

The results of this study were published recently in the online journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

The Necessity of Testing

Under current medical guidelines, the majority of echocardiograms scheduled by doctors are appropriate when it comes to proper patient care. However, while the book care of heart patients may include scheduling routine examinations, researchers have found that no one has bothered to examine whether the frequent use of echocardiograms does much to improve the management of a patient’s care.

Researchers argue that frequent scheduling of these types of examinations for no other reason than habit or formality makes little sense unless the information provided by the echocardiograms actually makes a difference in inpatient care. Otherwise, health care dollars that could go towards alternative treatments for other patients are just being wasted.

Depending on where a patient undergoes an echocardiogram, the test can cost somewhere between $100 and $1,000. Echocardiograms account for nearly half of all cardiac-imaging exams performed in the U.S. annually, according to researchers. In 2010 alone, echocardiogram testing accounted for over $1.1 billion, or nearly 11 percent, of the amount Medicare spent in total imaging costs that year.

Researchers argue that the public health system could have saved millions of dollars had only the patients who truly needed the exam received it.

To determine the necessity of the exam, researchers examined the data on 535 patients who received an echocardiogram from the UT Southwestern Medical Center in April of 2011. Researchers discovered that only one out of every three patients had their medical care altered due to what the test revealed.

A Change in Testing

While echocardiograms remain an appropriate testing method for many patients, including those who have suffered from heart failure, a lot of patients undergo the test simply due to availability and the desire of their doctor to have the test done, which mostly is a result of the test has become such a standard procedure rather than any immediate need.

Since most doctors don’t order these tests to drive up patient costs, researchers argue that a change of testing standards has become necessary to eliminate unnecessary testing. Researchers have also called for patients to ask more questions about their primary care physician about why testing is needed and whether they expect to change their current treatment regime depending on what the test reveals.

Considering that the majority of patients operate under a level of trust regarding the types of testing ordered by their physician, any significant change in services will need to come from the medical community rather than patients.

With health care costs continuing to skyrocket, unnecessary costs such as these must be eliminated for everyone to enjoy better health and cheaper health care.