Does an ECG screening programme for sudden cardiac death in the young result in a long term increase in cardiac mortality in the screened population?

A special theme issue of BJSM guest edited by Jon Drezner and Babette Pluim on the topic of sudden cardiac death in young athletes is scheduled for June 2009.

A letter from Dr. Thamindu Wedatilake, Hope Hospital, Salford, UK, related to this serious sports medicine condition:

I have read in interest the article by Wilson et al regarding their support for using an ECG in screening for sudden cardiac death in the young. Furthermore I note that there is considerable support from many sporting governing bodies for the above recommendation.

I note the comments of Dr Richard Page where he argued that in the USA alone, mass ECG screening of young athletes would exclude 2000 children from sport for every life saved.

Dr. Page’s comments have concerned me. By trying to save one life in an issue that is highly media motivated for the obvious dramatic nature of sudden cardiac death, we prison a further 2000 children to a potentially life threatening sedentary life style. Hence, ironically we may increase their risk of death from a cardiac cause later in life.

Are we really doing whats best for these children or are we dancing to the tune of the media? Have we thought about the long term repercussions that such a screening programme may have on our childrens’ physical and psychological wellbeing?

Yours/your colleagues thoughts are appreciated.

Jon Drezner replies:

Dr. Wedatilake,

You make an excellent point which was also raised by Dr. Page. Interestingly, I just gave a pro/con ECG screening Grand Rounds with Dr. Page and we looked at this question together.

The number of disqualifications and the downstream effect of limiting exercise in a subset of kids (with identified cardiovascular disease) but who may never suffer SCA is a question that needs to be investigated. I would agree that disqualifying 2000 to save 1 life may not be acceptable. What number of disqualifications is acceptable? 1000? 100? 10? I think the number of disqualifications calculated to save one life is hugely affected by 3 things: the incidence of SCD, prevalence of asymptomatic disease, and total positive (and false positive) rate of ECG screening. If you begin with traditional reported estimates (1:200,000 incidence and 15% false positive) you get about 2000 disqualifications. If you use statistics from more recent studies (1:50,000 incidence and 2-5% total positive rate), you get about 30-50 disqualifications to save a life. Unfortunately, these are all just calculations and until we have large scale studies with follow-up of those disqualified, the long-term effects will just be speculative.

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