Teenage athletes have often been honing their skills since grade school — which is why the parents of seemingly healthy athletes may be surprised to hear their doctor recommend a cardiac screening as part of the process of getting that routine sports physical.
But it’s a step that can save lives, doctors say. According to the American Heart Association, a little more than 1,300 high school and college-age students die of cardiovascular issues each year. In addition, 76 student athletes die of cardiovascular issues each year.
"If there is a way to tell if there’s heart disease that could kill kids in the enjoyable field of play, we should do that screening test,” says Dr. Paul Guttuso, a physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Kaufman and Texas Health Physicians Group.
"It’s a unique way of looking at electrocardiograms that fulfills that need.”
Heart health statistics for Kaufman County are consistently described as being below the national average. And that’s a description Texas Health Kaufman committed to addressing and rectifying last year.
Kaufman County averages about 248 heart disease-related deaths per 100,000 people every year — twice the national average. The hospital responded to the needs of the community by instituting a heart-health initiative through education outreach.
Using funds from the 2015 Black Tie Ball, an annual fundraiser held by the hospital’s Foundation, Texas Health Kaufman was able to purchase CardeaScreen equipment. CardeaScreen is, according to the manufacturer, a hand-held ECG system designed to be portable, accurate and reduce false positives.
“It’s a standard electrocardiogram, the same one we’ve used for years and years,” Guttuso explains. “It’s the way we interpret the EEG that has changed. It’s not in the technology, it’s in the interpretation.”
CardeaScreen, Guttuso says, designed their electrocardiogram machine to provide results based on this new interpretation.
And while the risk of sudden cardiac death seems low, Guttuso says that the statistics may not tell the whole story — which is why screenings are so important.
“When you’re looking at the risk of sudden cardiac death in an athlete, the statistics are all over the road,” he says. “It means to me that we really don’t know for sure how many deaths there could be because we’re looking retrospectively at them — we’re relying on doctors and hospitals to report them.”
The screenings are currently recommended for athletes 14 years of age and older. “That’s about the right age because most deaths and cardiac events happen in later high school and college years,” Guttuso explains.
And because these athletes may appear quite healthy because they’ve been active for so many years, cardiac screenings are actually more important, he says.
The doctor, who specializes in family medicine and sports medicine, says that there is a small potential for error — but that doesn’t change the importance of the test.
“The test can be positive and wrong,” Guttuso says. “All tests have a risk for false positives. The risk (with this method) is less than five percent.”
And if something comes up, Guttuso says that it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the student’s athletic career. “It means that they step away from the field of play, and get a much more thorough examination,” he explains. “Most of the time we’ll find something, but it’s something where we can educate them on how to play safer and they can continue to play.”
“In some cases, true — we’ll find they can’t play — but it’s literally saving their life.”
If you are looking for a pediatrician or sports medicine practitioner, it’s as easy as going to the Texas Health Resources physician finder or calling 1-877-THR-WELL.