Heart scans provide good early detection of heart issues

Heart scans provide good early detection of heart issues

Gary Rice, age 75, recently had a CT heart scan that surprised him, revealing he needs statin medication. He is a normally healthy guy who rides 5,000 miles a year on his bicycle.


At (very nearly) 75 years old, Gary Rice is in peak condition.

During fair weather (temperatures above 30 degrees) the tall, wiry Kenosha resident rides one of his several bicycles throughout the city and along county trails north and south. In any given year he can rack up an impressive total of 5,000 ridden miles.

Recently, however, he found out he might have been riding on borrowed time.

A CT heart scan conducted at Froedtert Kenosha revealed Rice had elevated levels of coronary artery calcium, a condition that if left untreated could lead to heart failure.

Known as Coronary Artery Calcium Scoring, the CT scan provides pictures of the heart to detect and measure calcium-containing plaque in the arteries.  The measurements generate a score that assesses risk for heart disease in those who have never manifested heart distress, say medical experts.

“It is geared more towards the asymptomatic person as a preventative tool,” says Dr. Timothy Sanborn, chair of cardiology services, Froedtert South.

The calcium score becomes part of a calculation factoring in a person’s cholesterol levels, blood pressure, smoking habits and diabetes status. “The calculator is very effective to determine risk for heart disease,” Sanborn said.

Patients deemed to be at low risk after screening may need no further treatment; others may need interventions such as medication with statins or additional tests.

Rice says he took the CT scan on the urging of his wife, Carol. “It was her idea. She saw (an ad) in the paper and I did it to give her piece of mind,” he said.

He had the scan done at Froedtert Pleasant Prairie in mid-January.

For Rice, who has been in optimal health, his elevated arterial calcium levels came as a surprise. “I’m healthy and my vitals are good, I was like, ‘What am I doing here?'”

After his results were reviewed by his physician and Dr. Sanborn, Rice was put on a minimum dose of statins as a preventative measure, he said.

Quick scans locally

The scan itself takes about 15 minutes and patients remain in their street clothes during the procedure. While getting pictures of the heart and its arteries, the scan also gets images the lungs, Sanborn added.

The scan is available by self-pay, not billable to insurance, for $49 at Froedtert Kenosha, Froedtert Pleasant Prairie and Advocate Aurora.

Heart scan technology has been around for the last couple decades but the simple scan continues to potentially save lives, say medical experts.

“Since starting our heart scan program in Wisconsin, around 16,000 patients have self-referred,” according to Doreen Plautz, Advocate Aurora system cardiac integration manager.

“Of (these patients) about 60% show a risk of mild, moderate or severe heart disease,” said Plautz, who runs the cardiovascular service line for the hospital system in Wisconsin.

“A (result of) positive calcium allows us to tell the patient they have some degree of plaque in their coronary arteries and to initiate work-up and treatment,” notes Dr. Anthony Locurto, cardiologist at Aurora Medical Center, Kenosha.

“A positive scans allow us to begin treatment with low dose aspirin and statins. Depending on the patient’s risk factors further testing has been ordered to further evaluate for coronary artery disease,” Locurto said.

Regular cholesterol testing and blood pressure monitoring are common tools used to monitor general health, but cardiac experts suggest that the CT scan be added to the toolbox of preventative tests.

“Doctors may check cholesterol levels routinely; but they don’t routinely stress this test,” Sanborn said.

“For those with mild and moderate risk, focus has been on educating and modifying cardiac risk factors,” Plautz said.

Positive potential

Tom Duncan, vice president, Froedtert South, said the scans have the potential to “change the course of an individual’s life through the early detection of heart disease.”

Promotions of the scan have resulted in an increase in appointments, Duncan said. “Since the end of December we have done (40-plus) scans; last year we did a total of 24.”

Advocate Aurora specialists agree that heart scans are doing good work in the community.

“The value of this program has been to build awareness of ways to prevent risk of developing coronary artery disease. We’ve had the opportunity to help people find programs offered by our system close to home, such as smoking cessation, blood pressure clinics, heart healthy cooking classes and even support groups that offer diabetes education,” Plautz said.

Although he didn’t expect to need medication, Rice, who turns 75 this week, is glad he had his scan and is looking forward to hitting the bike trails again when the weather breaks.