The Heart of the Matter: Screening Doesn't Help

Electro-cardiograms do not prevent sudden death syndrome

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) With growing concern about sudden death of young athletes, there is a push to start screening athletes using electro-cardiograms.

New research suggests that screening for electrical activity in the heart does not prevent sudden death.

Dr. Sami Viskin, of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, found that the rate of sudden death was essentially the same before and after 1997, when a law was passed that required screening athletes for heart problems.

"Athletic electro-cardiogram screening does not prevent sudden death."

While sudden death is almost always newsworthy, it is very uncommon. Less than three athletes out of 100,000 fall victim to sudden death syndrome. Dr. Viskin - a specialist in heart arrhythmia, the main cause of sudden death syndrome - suspected that electrocardiogram screenings did nothing to prevent sudden death.

To test his hunch, Viskin examined data from 1985 to 2009. He found 24 cases of sudden death or cardiac arrest among Israeli athletes.

Before the mandatory screening law was passed in 1997, there were eleven instances of sudden death. After 1997, there were 13 cases.

As the number of sudden deaths was so similar, it appears as though preventive screening did not save lives. Dr. Viskin says that American legislators who are thinking about passing laws to require screening of young athletes should reconsider their stance. Electrocardiogram tests are expensive and false-positives are not uncommon, Viskin explains.

It's possible that 10 percent of athletes being screened have an abnormal electrocardiogram, meaning that they will have to undergo even more expensive testing. Because sudden death syndrome is so rare, Viskin adds, more than 30,000 athletes would have to be screened in order to save just one life.

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Review Date: 
April 6, 2011
Last Updated:
April 11, 2011