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Many in U.S. Get Unneeded Heart Screening Tests

Survey Suggests Healthy Americans Get Tests That Could Expose Them to Unnecessary Risks
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 3, 2011 -- When it comes to heart screening tests, healthy Americans may be a little too test-happy, according to a recent survey conducted by Consumer Reports.

In July 2010, Consumer Reports polled 8,056 of its subscribers, ages 40 to 60, who had seen a doctor in the last 12 months and were free of any heart-related condition that might warrant heart-specific screening tests.

"This survey showed that even healthy people are having screening tests that don't work that well, could expose them to risks, and that they are going to end up having to pay for," John Santa, MD, MPH, director of the Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center, tells WebMD.

Santa and his team found that 44% of healthy adults with no heart disease risk factors reported that in the last five years they had had a heart-specific screening test other than routine blood pressure monitoring and blood work. The tests included an electrocardiogram (EKG) and an exercise stress test.

Based on recommendations from experts and the survey respondents' age and risk factors, the researchers determined that many of these tests were not needed.

In some cases, people had tests that have little evidence of benefit; in other cases, the tests might have been beneficial if they were older and had a history of smoking, for instance.

"EKGs and stress tests are not very helpful at any age in people who have no history of heart disease -- a heart attack, murmur, a heart rhythm problem -- no symptoms and no physical findings on examination that would create some concern that they might have heart disease," Santa says.

Rating Tests for Heart Disease

For the survey, the magazine rated nine medical tests that screen for heart disease, using recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and updating it with evidence and data published in reputable medical journals. The rating describes benefits, risks, and costs of each test depending on such factors as age and sex.

The nine tests include:

  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Blood glucose (to screen for diabetes)
  • C-reactive protein
  • Clogged peripheral arteries screen
  • Clogged carotid arteries screen
  • Abdominal aortic aneurysm screen
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG)
  • Stress test (EKG)

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