In my last post, about trying to decrease the incredible expense of US health care, I gave a link to the ideas Dr. Donald Berwick had outlined in the April 11th edition of JAMA. He thinks we could save huge amounts in six areas: failure of care delivery; failure of care coordination; overtreatment; administrative complexity; pricing failures and fraud & abuse.
Now I'd like to look at a few specific examples.
The same JAMA edition had a research article titled "Association of Major and Minor ECG Abnormalities with Coronary Heart Disease Events" It detailed the followup of nearly 2,200 people in my age range and up (they were 70 to 79) who were in the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. Thirteen percent had electrocardiograms with minor changes when the study started; twenty-three percent had more significant changes. Both kinds of ECG changes were associated with an increased likelihood of having coronary artery disease (CHD) during the subsequent years.
Now ECGs are relatively cheap and can be done in many settings. But the senior author, Dr. Reto Auer, said in an interview for a publication called heartwire "Our data do not permit one to say anything about clinical practice." The article itself concluded, "Whether ECG should be incorporated in routine screening of older adults should be evaluated in randomized, controlled trials."
In the same edition of JAMA a Northwestern University Preventive Medicine professor, Dr. Philip Greenland, commenting on Auer's research, mentioned a 1989 summary of the value of the "resting ECG," which said additional study was needed. Dr.Greenland said the major finding in Auer's work was a relatively new measurement called the net reclassification index (NRI). As opposed to diagnostic studies (e.g., does this patient have heart disease), this study hoped to be prognostic, telling what the chances were of a major heart event occurring in the future to a particular study subject. In this case the NRI helped most in reclassifying people into a lower CHD risk group, not a higher one.
All of that is fascinating and the Auer article is a superb example of carefully performed research. But, my fear is that many physicians won't read the caveats. If you ignore the last paragraph, skip the editorial and never get to "theheart.org's" take on the work, you may well decide that every older adult should have an ECG done on a regular basis.
In the same edition of the journal is a pair of short articles deliberately set up to examine a medical controversy, in this case whether a middle-aged man with an elevated cholesterol, but no personal or family history of coronary heart disease should be given statin drugs to lower his cholesterol. This is a new feature of the journal, and the accompanying editorial, with the intriguing title, "The Debut of Dueling Viewpoints," explains this will be a continuing series of discussions and debates.
What a wonderful idea.
The the online publication, theheart.org actually had a nice summary of the two pieces,