Clinicians should not screen for cardiac disease in asymptomatic, low-risk adults using resting or stress electrocardiography, stress echocardiography, or stress myocardial perfusion imaging , according to new guidelines from the American College of Physicians.

“There is no evidence that cardiac screening of low-risk adults with resting or stress ECG, stress echocardiography, or stress MPI improves outcomes, but it is associated with increased costs and potential harms,” wrote the guideline’s author, Dr. Roger Chou , associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland.

The recommendation is based on a systematic literature review, recommendations from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, and American College of Cardiology guidelines. The new ACP clinical guideline was published March 17 in Annals of Internal Medicine (doi: 10.7326/M14-1225).

“What we are saying here is that, as physicians, we have responsibility to understand what the pretest probability is, and what the likelihood is that someone actually has disease – and if it’s low enough, then doing the screening test is going to cause a lot more false positives than true positives,” Dr. Robert Centor , regional dean of the Huntsville Medical Campus of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, explained in an interview.

“Even if it is a true positive, there is no evidence that we can find that finding that heart disease will do anything other than lead someone to do a procedure that we have no evidence will improve their outcomes,” added Dr. Centor, chair of the ACP Board of Regents.

Despite existing recommendations to the contrary, physicians are increasingly performing these tests on low-risk patients, the ACP cautioned.

For example, a Consumer Reports survey found that “39% of asymptomatic adults without high blood pressure or a high cholesterol level reported having ECG within the past 5 years, and 12% reported undergoing exercise ECG,” Dr. Chou wrote in his report on behalf of the ACP High Value Care Task Force. More than half of those patients said their physicians recommended the tests as part of their routine health care.The rise in the use of such tests is likely the result of a combination of factors, Dr. Centor said. Those factors include money (patients see no out-of-pocket cost and thus don’t consider the cost of tests in their decision making), direct-to-consumer advertising, fear on behalf of physicians that they might miss a diagnosis, and a lack of understanding by patients on the adverse effects of screening if they are at low risk for heart disease.

Dr. Chou identified a number of potential harms related to unnecessary screenings, including sudden death or hospitalization during stress tests; adverse events from pharmacologics used to induce stress; radiation exposure from myocardial perfusion imaging; false positive results that, in turn, lead to anxiety by the patient and additional unnecessary tests and treatments; disease labeling; and downstream harms from follow-up testing and interventions.

“To be most effective, efforts to reduce the use of imaging should be multifocal and should address clinician behavior, patient expectations, direct-to-consumer screening programs, and financial incentives,” Dr. Chou explained.

In low-risk patients, physicians instead should “focus on treating modifiable risk factors (such as smoking, diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and overweight) and encouraging healthy levels of exercise,” according to the guideline.


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