NEW ORLEANS – Results of a first-of-its-kind nationwide U.K. cardiac disease screening program in the general population of teens and young adults indicate that incorporating a 12-lead ECG alongside history and physical examination not only increases the diagnostic yield for conditions predisposing to sudden cardiac death, but it’s actually cost saving, compared with screening by history and physical exam alone, Harshil Dhutia, MD, said at the American Heart Association scientific sessions.
Current practice in the United Kingdom and most other western countries, including the United States, is to screen for cardiac disease in the general population of young people by history and physical exam alone. Only those with symptoms or a positive family history on the initial screen go on to a more comprehensive evaluation including an ECG. The ECG isn’t part of the initial screen primarily because of cost concerns. However, those concerns are based upon conjecture. The diagnostic and financial implications of routine screening by 12-lead ECG in the general population of young people hadn’t been examined prior to the nationwide U.K. screening program – and the results of the U.K. project indicate it’s time for a change in policy, according to Dr. Dhutia, a cardiology research fellow at St. George’s University in London.
The screening project, known as the Cardiac Risk in the Young Program, included 26,900 subjects aged 14-35 years without known cardiovascular disease who responded to public service announcements and voluntarily presented for screening at schools, community centers, and health centers across the U.K. during 2011-2013. The mean age of the subjects was 19.4 years, roughly two-thirds were male, and 90% were white. All screening was performed by cardiologists who followed the AHA protocol for history-taking, performed the physical exam, and followed the European Society of Cardiology 2010 recommendations for ECG interpretation. Individuals with a positive screen were referred to their local hospital for further investigation. Participants were prospectively followed for 2 years.
“This was the first study of comprehensive cardiovascular screening of young individuals outside competitive sport,” Dr. Dhutia noted.
Among the key findings: 3.5% of subjects were deemed by their screening cardiologist to have an abnormal history and/or physical exam warranting further investigation, 8.1% had an abnormal 12-lead ECG, and 0.5% had both. Overall, 11.7% of subjects underwent echocardiography to confirm or refute a diagnosis of cardiac disease, 1.7% underwent Holter monitoring, 1.7% had an exercise stress test, and 0.9% underwent cardiac MRI.
At 2 years of follow-up, 87 individuals, or 0.3% of the overall study cohort, had been diagnosed with a serious cardiac disease predisposing to sudden cardiac death.
“The vast majority of these individuals were asymptomatic and diagnosed on the basis of an ECG abnormality,” Dr. Dhutia observed.
Indeed, 72 of the 87 patients with serious cardiac disease were diagnosed on the basis on their abnormal ECG. This tool proved particularly helpful in identifying individuals with cardiomyopathies or congenital accessory pathways, such as Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome or long QT syndrome. At 2 years of follow-up, 42 of these 72 patients were on disease-modifying therapies beyond lifestyle interventions, most commonly ablation procedures or antiarrhythmic medication.
The history and physical exam was useful in identifying young people with channelopathies or Marfan syndrome. Roughly half of individuals identified by history and physical exam as having serious cardiac disease were on antiarrhythmic medication – or, less commonly, pacemaker therapy – at 2 years follow-up.
The overall cost per individual screened using history, physical exam, and ECG amounted to $110 on the basis of U.K. National Health Service rates. The cost per serious cardiac condition identified was $33,927. In contrast, the average cost per serious cardiac diagnosis under the current U.K. protocol of screening youth by history and physical exam only is 67% greater, at $56,597.
“Inclusion of ECG to history and physical examination is associated with a significantly improved diagnostic yield and superior economic profile. These findings have the potential to influence health care policy and certainly suggest that the National Health Service framework in the United Kingdom is counterintuitive and may warrant revision,” he concluded.
Session moderator Nisha Parikh, MD, of the University of California, San Francisco, asked if Dr. Dhutia and his coinvestigators had identified any characteristics associated with serious occult cardiac disease in adolescents and young adults that would permit a more refined, selective approach to screening.
Not in the general population of nearly 27,000 subjects in the U.K. study, he replied. Competitive athletes are a different story, though.
“In competitive athletes, certainly individuals who play stop/start sports such as basketball or football [soccer], appear to be at higher risk, especially those of Afro-Caribbean origin. The incidence of sudden cardiac death in Afro-Caribbean basketball players is 1 in 3,000,” according to Dr. Dhutia, who discussed his findings in a video interview.
He reported receiving a small research grant for his study from the Cardiac Risk in the Young Program, a U.K. charitable organization.