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North Dakota company woos Manitobans for echocardiograms

Don't waste money, says cardiac doctor

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A North Dakota company is wooing Manitobans nervous about their health to cross the border for quick screening tests they might wait weeks or months for in Canada.

But the head of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority's cardiac sciences program warns people considering heading south might be wasting their money.

Simple Tests That May Save Your Life! shouts the headline of a flyer inserted into the Free Press earlier this week by North Dakota-based Mobile Life Screening.

An echocardiogram (ECHO), which uses sound waves to create a picture of your heart, was advertised for $399. A "complete wellness package" that includes the ECHO and several other tests was priced at $498. The service will be provided at a church in Pembina, N.D., on March 17.

Long waits for diagnostic tests, such as echocardiograms, have been an ongoing issue in Manitoba. Last year, the wait for non-urgent patients was 44 weeks. That has since been cut to 22 weeks. Yet, the lure of a quick test is hard for some Manitobans to pass up.

But Dr. Alan Menkis, medical director of the WRHA's cardiac sciences program, says an echocardiogram is a wasteful way to screen the general population for potential heart problems.

"Unless there's an indication that there's a problem, or an indication that you have to look for a problem, using an ECHO as a screening test is really a waste," he said in an interview.

Mobile Life Screening's advertising plays upon public fears about the seriousness of cardiovascular disease. "Every seven minutes in Canada, someone dies from heart disease or stroke. Why take the risk?" the company says in its ad. (Incidentally, according to American health authorities, the U.S. statistic is one death every 40 seconds.)

Menkis said while cardiovascular disease is, indeed, a big health problem, the statistic cited in the ad is irrelevant when it comes to deciding if someone should receive an echocardiogram. A more efficient screening for heart problems is a checkup with a family doctor or a specialist.

While the test will, for instance, detect a heart-valve problem, Menkis said, it's "highly unlikely" someone will have such a problem without a heart murmur. "A doctor laying a stethoscope on your chest is a far more useful screening than an ECHO," he said, noting in some jurisdictions the number of "inappropriate ECHOs" approaches 80 per cent.

So should Manitobans take a trip to Pembina, N.D. for an echocardiogram? "I think for the vast overwhelming majority, the only outcome is that their wallets will be $400 lighter," Menkis said.

But Randy Spielvogel, the former Winnipegger who founded Mobile Life Screening in 2006, begs to differ. He said he sees numerous Manitobans at his Fargo facility.

When he sets up his mobile service in Pembina about once a month, he will do between eight and 15 echocardiograms alone in a single day.

"You'd be surprised at the things we do find on these people who come and see us," he said this week. The list includes diseased heart valves, aortic aneurysms and thickened heart walls.

The company also does abdominal and thyroid ultrasounds and screens for cerebrospinal venous insufficiency or CCSVI.

Spielvogel said his business doesn't target just anybody. "We're doing a population of people who think they may have a condition with their heart and they're coming and being screened. I don't see what's wrong with that," he said, adding some Winnipeg doctors even mention his service to their patients as an alternative to a longer wait for a free test at home.

Manitoba has a shortage of echocardiogram technologists. And the province no longer has a training program for them.

Health Minister Theresa Oswald said Mobile Life Screening has offered to set up shop in Manitoba in the past, although there have been no recent discussions between the government and the firm.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 10, 2012 0

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