Ever since President George W. Bush had stent surgery last Tuesday to open a blocked artery, leading physicians who weren’t involved in his care have wondered publically why he had this “unnecessary” procedure. Large clinical trials have demonstrated that stent placement doesn’t extend lives or prevent a future heart attack or stroke in those with stable heart disease.
What’s more, Bush could wind up with complications like a reblockage where the stent was placed or excessive bruising or internal bleeding from the blood thinners that he must take likely for the next year.
Dr Richard Besser, the chief medical correspondent for ABC News, questioned why Bush had an exercise stress test as part of his routine physical exam given that he had no symptoms like chest pain or shortness of breath. The stress test indicated signs of an artery blockage.
“In people who are not having symptoms, the American Heart Association says you should not do a stress test,” Besser said, “since the value of opening that artery is to relieve the symptoms.”
Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. Steve Nissen agreed in his interview with USA Today. Bush, he said, likely “got the classical thing that happens to VIP patients, when they get so-called executive physicals and they get a lot of tests that aren’t indicated. This is American medicine at its worst.”
Two physicians wrote in an Washington Post op-ed column titled “President Bush’s unnecessary surgery” that they worry that the media coverage of Bush’s stent will lead “patients to pressure their own doctors for unwarranted and excessive care.”
But none of these doctors actually treated Bush or examined his medical records, so I’m a little surprised they’re making such firm calls.
Bush, an avid biker who recently completed a 100-kilometer ride, probably shouldn’t have had the exercise stress test if he wasn’t having any heart symptoms. “Routine stress testing used to be done 20 years ago, but isn’t recommended any longer since it doesn’t have any benefit,” said Brigham and Women’s cardiologist Dr. Christopher Cannon.
But Bush’s spokesman insisted the stent was necessary after followup heart imaging via a CT angiogram “confirmed a blockage that required opening.”
Cannon said Bush’s doctors may have seen signs that blood flow wasn’t getting to a significant part of the heart muscle, a condition known as ischemia. Researchers have found that those with moderate to severe ischemia appear to experience a reduction in fatal heart attacks when they have a stent placement along with medical therapy, rather than just taking medications alone. (Larger studies, though, are needed to confirm this finding.)
“If a blockage occurs at the very start of the artery and it’s extensive—95 percent blocked—then chances are it will cause significant ischemia,” Cannon said. While severe ischemia usually causes light-headedness or dizziness during exercise, Bush may have had more moderate ischemia that didn’t cause such symptoms.
It’s impossible to know for certain, he added, without seeing his medical records firsthand.Deborah Kotz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.