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Sudden deaths of young athletes fuel the heart screening debate

by Olga Deshchenko, DOTmed News Reporter | June 28, 2011
From the June 2011 issue of HealthCare Business News magazine

Marek’s YH4L program is an example of a community initiative that strives to be large scale, cost-effective and efficient. Because of the program’s design, the organization can go into a high school and do about 1,200 ECGs in one day.

To perform the ECGs, YH4L trains community volunteers. Parents take part in a 90-minute training program that discusses sudden cardiac death and teaches them to do an ECG. “We’ve trained about 6,000 community volunteers so far,” says Marek.

A common criticism of the volunteers performing the tests is that they are not medically trained professionals. But Marek says “that’s nonsense.”

“When I was a medical student, I learned how to do an ECG in about five minutes,” he says. “Nowadays, if people can figure out how to use their darn cell phone, they can certainly do an ECG.”

Marek’s team has also carried out an internal study that shows the quality assurance rate of ECGs done by community volunteers is the same or better than that of tests done at an outpatient cardiology department. (The team will publish these findings soon.)

Because parents and cardiologists volunteer their time, the students are screened free of charge. But if the cost were to be calculated, ECGs would run about $10 per student, according to Marek.

Although Marek doesn’t believe extensive cardiac screening should be mandatory, he does think that physicians have a responsibility to inform parents of the sudden cardiac arrest risks and the available testing options.

Not only is there no national registry to gather sudden cardiac arrest numbers, but many studies are also flawed because they use a very rigid definition of “athlete,” says Marek.

“If some young adult dies at home from one of these conditions while he’s playing basketball in the driveway, it doesn’t hit the news,” he says. “But is his death any less important than if he were making a winning basket?”

For many cardiologists, those reasons are enough to continue inspecting students’ electrocardiograms for abnormalities.

“I’ve thought a lot about this. I don’t want to waste my free time doing and reading ECGs and make parents donate their free time,” says Marek. “I’m looking for a reason not to do this and quite frankly, I haven’t found one.”

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