Should young athletes be screened for heart disease?

In the wake of sudden deaths in a young athletes, the question arises – as it does after each of these tragic events – whether all young athletes should be screened for occult heart disease before participating in sports. It appears, for instance, that 16-year-old Wes Leonard had an underlying heart condition which likely could have been identified with a simple echocardiogram.

The question is controversial, and accordingly, even the professionals disagree. The European Society of Cardiology and the International Olympic Committee, for instance, recommend screening every young athlete with electrocardiograms (ECGs), and if the ECG is abnormal, following with an echocardiogram. But the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology do not recommend screening ECGs, and advocate only a medical history and physical examination – which will notoriously miss many if not most of the occult cardiac conditions that produce sudden death in young athletes.

To DrRich, of course, sorting through the controversy is mere child’s play. Allow him to explain.

The problem in answering this question stems solely from our failure to clearly identify what we wish to accomplish in establishing such a screening policy.

Those who advocate widespread screening stress the horrific nature of sudden death in vital young people.  They can fully articulate their argument simply by pointing to the awful video of young Wes scoring the winning basket to cap off a perfect season, then moments later, collapsing and dying. The scene is just too gut-wrenching to watch. Clearly, we should all want to do whatever we can to prevent such scenes from ever happening again. If Mr. Leonard had had an echocardiogram, it is likely that this tragedy might not have happened – and that should be argument enough for a widespread screening program.

For a good articulation of the alternative point of view we can begin by turning to DrRich’s colleague, Dr. Wes. Wes points to the experience of a Detroit area hospital that screened 5200 young student athletes, and identified three who had cardiac abnormalities which placed them at risk for sudden death. In finding these three individuals, the screeners not only performed ECGs on all 5200 students, but also performed nearly 1000 echocardiograms on students with suspicious ECGs, and in the process identified at least 30 students who needed even further evaluation (and possibly treatment). Evaluating these other, possibly false-positive cases not only cost money, but also subjected these young students to medical risk. Dr. Wes estimates the overall cost of this screening process at well over $600,000, and Wes is being very conservative in his assumptions.  As a result of this well-intentioned effort, it appears that several kids were told not to participate in sports any more; it is not clear that any lives were actually saved.

As it happens, a report from Israel this week in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology substantiates Wes’ suspicions. According to this study, the national mandatory cardiac screening program for athletes, instituted in Israel in 1997, seems not to have reduced the incidence of sudden death in young athletes at all. The incidence of sudden death was 2.6 per 100,000 athlete-years both before and after the mandatory screening was instituted.

Does this mean that screening does not save any lives? No. It is certain that some individuals are spared sudden death thanks to this aggressive type of screening program – just not enough to affect the overall statistics. This result illustrates that when you are dealing with an event that has such a low incidence of occurrence, it is extraordinarily difficult to prove that your intervention is producing a statistically significant reduction in that incidence.

Furthermore, by definition, screening programs of any type (whether it’s screening for sudden death in athletes or screening for breast cancer) don’t change outcomes. All they do is identify people at some degree of increased risk. To change the outcomes, you have to find a way of treating the at-risk individuals you’ve identified with some process that is sufficiently effective, that itself does not worsen outcomes, and that the at-risk individual is willing and able to employ.

In the case of screening young athletes, to effect a reduction in the rate of sudden death you must either convince the young person to give up sports (not only organized sports, but all athletic activities), or find a way to make the underlying heart condition go away. DrRich understands that some of his readers might not have experience in trying to convince dedicated young athletes to stop what they’re doing and become bookkeepers, but the fact is that informing them of the risk is not always perfectly effective in changing their behavior. And while most of the cardiac conditions that produce a risk of sudden death in these young people can be managed to one degree or another, they generally are not “cured” or mitigated to the extent that athletic activity becomes risk-free.

So, while occasional individuals are likely to benefit substantially from these screening programs, if you look at it from the collective point of view these programs appear to do little or no measurable overall good, despite the high cost.

So this brings us back to the original question – should routine cardiac screening of athletes be performed? It seems clear, to DrRich at least, that the answer is: It depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

If you are asking the question from a collective viewpoint, wherein “society” will be paying the bills for the screening procedures, and thus will not have that money any longer to spend on other healthcare services that might yield a more substantial result, it is obvious (since there is no measurable benefit but a high cost) that such screening should not be done.

But if you are one of the individuals – or the loved one of such an individual – who is concerned about having a readily identifiable cardiac condition which places you at risk for sudden death, and would be willing to change your behavior if you are found to be at high risk, it would be entirely reasonable for you to want cardiac screening, and furthermore you should have every opportunity to avail yourself of that screening.

So what we have here is that very common circumstance, which modern medical ethicists insist never ever occur, wherein what is clearly best for an individual is equally clearly not best for the collective.

This situation, DrRich thinks, is analogous to the situation with smoke detectors. Smoke detectors clearly save lives here and there – we have all heard anecdotes about a family being aroused to safety by a smoke detector. But proving that the overall incidence of death from fire has been significantly reduced in the era of smoke detectors seems difficult if not impossible. And if it were society’s job to buy smoke detectors for every individual, then society would – rightly – determine that the cost is not worth the insubstantial benefit.

Yet, everybody has smoke detectors. Why?

Simply, everybody has smoke detectors because it is NOT society’s job to pay for them. The individual does. And the individual does not care that smoke detectors cost $1.2 million per life saved. They only care that the life saved, potentially, is theirs, and that owning the smoke detector that might just save their life does not cost them $1.2 million, it only costs them $19.99.

The issue of screening young athletes would be resolved if we made screening ECGs readily available to individuals for $10 at Walmart, and a follow-up echo (if needed) for $50, also at Walmart. Then individuals who decide that they wanted to know if they’re at risk for sudden death could do their own cost-benefit analysis, and if the potential benefit is worth a few dollars to them, they could buy the screening for themselves.

So screening young athletes for underlying cardiac conditions seems like a pretty good idea, just like smoke detectors seem like a pretty good idea. Where we go wrong is by making such screening a medical service, and therefore making it the responsibility of the collective to pay for it (if indeed it is to be purchased), and furthermore, making it next to impossible – and soon illegal – for individuals to pay for it themselves.

From the collective point of view, paying for the screening of young athletes makes no more sense than would collectively purchasing smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, fog lights, back-up cameras, home security systems, and a host of other personal safety-enhancers that people will happily pay for themselves, but which would be ridiculously wasteful to pay for collectively.

Which just goes to illustrate a general rule: The more stuff we collectivize, the less stuff we’ll have.

Richard Fogoros is a cardiologist who blogs at The Covert Rationing Blog.  He is the author of Fixing American Healthcare – Wonkonians, Gekkonians, and the Grand Unification Theory of Healthcare.


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