Attila the Cardiologist

The history of Western civilization, from prehistoric times until relatively recently (so recently, in fact, that one cannot be absolutely certain the pattern has been broken), has been marked by successive waves of invasions by wild barbarians from the north. (This explains why DrRich will never completely trust the Canadians.) Every few hundred years, one group of primitives or another – Scythians, Goths, Vandals, Huns, Avars, Norsemen, Bulgars, Mongols, and others named and unnamed – would sweep down upon their betters, upon the more civilized, more culturally and intellectually advanced people to the south, and by the expediencies of slaughter, rape and pillage, would take their land, possessions, freedom, and their lives. The advancing barbarian wave would eventually play itself out, and individual members of the untamed horde would simply settle in place, and over a few generations would become civilized themselves – until the next group of barbarians, in turn, would fall upon them.

It was a cycle as natural as the seasons.

What drove these irresistible barbarian movements? Historians still argue about it. Likely these violent migrations were caused by several different things – famine, plague, encroachment by even nastier barbarians from even farther north, and climate change (though this latter conjecture is now politically incorrect, since the official and proper view of the earth’s climate is that it was absolutely stable for millions of years, until Henry Ford and George Bush came along and bent the temperature curve upwards, like a hockey stick).

The reason DrRich brings all this up, of course, is: to warn his medical colleagues about the cardiologists.

Dear reader, the cardiologists are on the move. Their home turf is being encroached upon, their livelihoods gravely threatened, by the biggest, most ruthless, and most irresistible force on earth – the Feds. And in response they are gathering themselves into a great wave, and they are preparing to overrun the territories of less robust, less terrifying, more civilized (possibly more effete) medical specialists, and make themselves a new home.

Some medical specialists aside from the cardiologists are of course also predatory by nature, but for the most part their territorial incursions are predictable, localized and contained – the orthopedic surgeons and the neurosurgeons, for instance, will fight over lumbar disc surgery. Not so for the cardiologists.

DrRich is a cardiologist, and he knows that the Board Certification papers wielded by cardiologists do not read: “Certified in the practice of cardiac medicine,” but rather, “Certified in the practice of cardiovascular medicine.” Cardiologists, in other words, are officially certified not merely in the practice of heart disease, but also in the practice of any and all disorders affecting the blood vessels.

And DrRich urges his unsuspecting medical colleagues to please notice that blood vessels are prominent features of every organ system in the body. Cardiologists therefore recognize no natural limits to their rightful turf; if it is supplied by the vascular system, it is theirs. And if some other kind of specialist has traditionally claimed sovereignty over some particular organ – say, the liver – their continued success lies entirely in the fact that the cardiologists have not yet chosen to assert their rightful authority. (As it happens, hepatologists are relatively safe, as most cardiologists think of the liver as a particularly uninteresting organ, which, after all, just sits there doing nothing. Many cardiologists, in fact, persist in getting the liver and the kidneys mixed up.) Still, should it ever become convenient for cardiologists to invade the hepatologists’ space, these relatively intellectual, relatively sedentary specialists don’t stand a chance.

What all this means is that when the cardiologists are on the move, nobody is safe. And they are on the move.

Hide the women and children!

The cardiology settlements have been restless for years, continually expanding and growing, and spilling out across their borders to encroach on the turf of their nearby neighbors. They long ago began driving the formerly proud and powerful cardiothoracic surgeons into a sad state of underemployment. More recently they have usurped the formerly sovereign territory of diabetes specialists. They are currently laying siege to sleep medicine (pulmonary specialists) and bariatrics (weight loss specialists). All of these incursions can be related, within one or two degrees of freedom, to heart disease. So these are localized disputes.

But in the last year or so, cardiologists have moved from a state of mere restlessness to a state of high alarm. The ruthless Feds (a mysterious tribe arising from a dark, inexplicable cauldron of a place where even the laws of physics, economics, and human nature do not apply) have taken to attacking the cardiologists where they live – in their home turf of stents and implantable defibrillators. By conducting secret and extensive DOJ investigations as to whether cardiologists are plying their trade according to “guidelines” (a form of tribute acknowledging their state of thrall to the Central Authority), and by threatening to jail them or fine them into professional oblivion (to the point where even the ubiquitous threat of malpractice suits has become a relatively trivial concern), the Feds have forced cardiologists to recognize that it is time for them to move on. It is time to seek out new territory.

There is no telling where they will show up next. If any of you non-cardiologists think you are safe, think again.

To illustrate just how unpredictable the Great Cardiology Migration is likely to become, DrRich will review a few of their recent incursions into the territory of some of the least likely of the medical specialists – the neurologists and the neurosurgeons.

The cardiologists’ encroachment into the field of neurological medicine is not only surprising in itself (for who would have thought that such shoot-from-the-hip, action-addicted specialists would find anything interesting about the brain?), but especially surprising is its scope and its persistence. Cardiologists actually began this process several years ago, under the radar, when they took to blaming imbalances of the autonomic nervous system (i.e., dysautonomia) on mitral valve prolapse. In more recent years, and somewhat more openly, they have attempted to take ownership of migraine headaches.

And now, in recent months, cardiologists have laid claim to the brass ring of the neurological diseases – Alzheimer’s Disease. If they can wrest this common and expensive disorder away from the neurologists, a disorder which people will pay almost any amount of money to prevent or treat, they can set themselves up for generations.

The typical pattern of behavior employed by the cardiology invaders is easy enough to spot. First, they call attention to an alleged association between some cardiac condition (a condition they will manufacture if necessary), and a neurological disorder. Then, immediately, they will assert that (or at least begin behaving as if) the association proves a cause-and-effect relationship. Finally, since they have demonstrated that the neuro problem is produced by a cardiac condition, it will become necessary to refer patients who have (or might develop) that dreaded neuro problem to cardiologists, who, lo and behold, will have invented a well-paying procedure which they claim will treat it.

The best known example is mitral valve prolapse (MVP), a congenital condition in which the mitral valve partially flops open when it should be closed, thus allowing blood to flow backwards (i.e., to regurgitate) across the mitral valve as the heart contracts. (For anyone interested, here’s a brief description of the heart’s chambers and valves.) Now, significant MVP can be a serious medical problem which requires mitral valve surgery. Fortunately, however, this kind of serious MVP is relatively uncommon.

But happily for cardiologists, echocardiography (a non-invasive test using sound waves to create an image of the beating heart) has become so advanced that some degree of trivial MVP, it seems, can be found in almost anybody. According to some studies, as many as 25 – 35% of healthy individuals – people without any cardiac problems or any symptoms whatsoever – can be said to have some degree of MVP. In fact, whether you have MVP or not depends largely on what criteria the echocardiographer uses to make the call, and how badly the referring doctor wants you to have the diagnosis.

Over the years it has become customary to diagnose MVP in young, apparently normal people who have the temerity to complain about the highly disruptive symptoms of dysautonomia (such as fatigue, weakness, strange pains, dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, cramps or passing out), without supplying the kinds of objective physical or laboratory findings which, doctors insist, patients are always obligated to provide. Such thoughtless patients are now routinely sent for echocardiography, so that MVP can be diagnosed (since it can be diagnosed just about whenever it is looked for). The patient is then given the diagnosis of “mitral prolapse syndrome,” even though: a) the MVP is usually so trivial as to be nonexistent; b) the studies which claim to show an association between MVP and these sorts of symptoms are generally based on a gross over-diagnosis of MVP; and c) there is no credible theory based on actual physiology to explain how MVP – even real MVP, much less the trivial kind – might cause such symptoms.

But no matter. “Rule out MVP” has become one of the most common reasons for young, healthy people to be referred for echocardiography, and has become a stable source of income for cardiologists.

The story is similar for the association between patent foramen ovale (PFO) and migraine headaches.

In the developing fetus, the foramen ovale is a hole that is present in the atrial septum (the thin structure that separates the right atrium from the left atrium). At birth, a flap of tissue imposes itself over the foramen ovale, causing it to close. In some people, however – people with PFO – the tissue flap is still capable of flopping open. In people with PFO, the foramen ovale can open for a few moments if the pressure in the right atrium becomes transiently greater than the pressure in the left atrium, such as with coughing, or straining during a bowel movement.

In rare instances, strokes in healthy young patients have been attributed to PFO. The supporting theory is that a stroke can occur when a blood clot happens to be coursing through the right atrium at the precise moment when a person with PFO is coughing (for instance), allowing the clot to move into the left atrium, and on to the brain. And because this theory is at least plausible, in a young person who has an unexplained stroke and is then found to have a PFO, it makes at least some sense to close the PFO.

But the presence or absence of a PFO is a little like the presence or absence of MVP. Its diagnosis depends to some extent on how hard the echocardiographer looks for it, and on how much the referring doctor would appreciate the diagnosis. With modern echocardiographic equipment, at least some sign of PFO can be found in as many as 25% of normal individuals.

Being able to make this nifty diagnosis would be of little use to cardiologists if the only clinical problem it may cause is a one-in-a-million chance of stroke. One cannot make a living, or even make a car payment, doing echocardiograms in those extremely rare young patients with cryptic strokes. So it didn’t take long for cardiologists to draw a more useful association – this time, between PFOs and migraine headaches.

While all the things that have to happen in order for a PFO to cause a stroke are very unlikely, at least one can assemble a string of very unlikely events that, should they all occur simultaneously, might possibly produce a stroke. This is not the case with migraine. No plausible theory has been advanced to explain how PFO might cause migraines. The only reason PFO is being invoked as a cause for migraine is that when patients with migraine have been carefully studied for the presence of PFO, an increased incidence of PFO was found. (But again, when PFO is carefully sought in any population of patients, it is more likely to be found.) The only likely reason PFO has not been associated with cancer, red hair, type A personality, or difficulty in memorizing the multiplication tables is that cardiologists have not thought of looking for it (yet) in these conditions.

For cardiologists, the poorly-supported allegation that PFO causes migraine is particularly compelling, since not only can they get paid for the echocardiograms to look for PFOs in migraine sufferers, but also there is an invasive (and lucrative) procedure they can do to close PFOs, to “treat” the migraines. Studies to date have not been successful in showing that closing PFOs improves migraine headaches, but that hasn’t kept cardiologists from screening migraine patients for PFO, then offering them PFO closure as a therapeutic option.

Migraine sufferers are particularly vulnerable to this and many other unproven therapies, since they are often disabled by their condition, and in many cases medical science (or medical ignorance) offers them insufficient help. Consequently, anecdotal stories abound regarding unorthodox therapies that cure migraines. (DrRich, himself a migraine sufferer for many decades, has heard them all.) One undeniable truth is that merely performing PFO closures on enough migraine suffers is guaranteed to produce a patient here or there who will report a positive response. And despite the continued negativity of actual clinical trials so far, that’s what happened.

So, by anecdote – but not by controlled trial – closing PFOs can cure migraines.

But now it gets even worse for the neurologists. Any who ignored the cardiologist’s usurpation of dysautonomia, and who may have felt only a little more concern when cardiologists began to lay claim to migraine headaches, had best sit up and take notice. Because now, cardiologists are laying claim to Alzheimer’s Disease.

Recently, researchers presented a study suggesting that ablation procedures for atrial fibrillation are associated with a lower risk of subsequent Alzheimer’s disease. (Here’s some information on atrial fibrillation and its treatment if you are interested.) The study was presented as an abstract only, so we know relatively little about the specifics.

But, really. Atrial fibrillation and Alzheimer’s are both disorders associated with aging, so it is not surprising that they are associated with each other – in the same way that atrial fibrillation is associated with gray hair, cataracts, and bunions. Ablation for atrial fibrillation is a relatively lengthy and difficult procedure, whose results are relatively middling, and which carries a substantial risk of some really nasty complications. So these ablation procedures are generally reserved for carefully selected, reasonably ideal candidates – usually, the relatively young, relatively healthy atrial fibrillation patients, who are less likely to get Alzheimer’s disease over the next few years whether they have ablations or not.

So there is a lot to be cautious about in interpreting a preliminary study like this one.

But such objections are just quibbles. When this study was reported, the headlines in the typically discerning American press blared: “Ablation Procedures For Atrial Fibrillation Prevents Alzheimer’s.” Whatever the details and limitations of this study, cardiologists can now treat Alzheimer’s. Mission accomplished.

Then, just last week, the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association released a formal scientific statement to the effect that vascular disorders are an important cause of Alzheimer’s disease. So this new statement clearly plants the flag for the AHA’s chief constituency – the cardiologists (who, DrRich reminds his readers, own vascular disorders).

Remarkably, the American Academy of Neurology, apparently failing utterly to grasp its significance, endorsed the statement. As a result, American neurologists have formally taken the knee before their new masters.

You see how this works?

Now, having for the last time, with an unerring sense of fair play, called this problem to the attention of his non-cardiologist medical colleagues, DrRich would like to finish by emphasizing an overarching point.

You can’t fight the Feds. When the Central Authority, at the point of a gun, decides to reach down into the world of the medical specialists, and dictate which medical services are no longer going to be feasible (all for the noblest of purposes, of course), the affected medical specialists have a limited range of possible responses. And fighting the Feds is NOT among these available responses. It would be more effective – and certainly safer – for doctors to fight against the change of the seasons.

So the affected specialists have only two options. They can contract their horizons, take what’s left, and try to make the best of it. Or, they can do what the Visigoths did when the people of the steppes fell upon them. Strike out against other, weaker tribes and take what’s theirs.

DrRich is not passing any judgment on his cardiology brethren here. (Would you have him judge a she-bear protecting her cubs?) He is just describing what’s happening. You who lie in their path can do with the information as you see fit.

In the meantime, DrRich remains supremely confident that his cardiology colleagues can find a nearly unlimited supply of plunder in this brave new world. They are very robust barbarians.

Richard N. Fogoros, M.D. (DrRich) is a former professor of medicine and a longtime practitioner, researcher and author in the fields of cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology. He currently makes his living as a consultant in research and development with biomedical companies, and as a writer. He shares many thoughts and observations at his blog, The Covert Rationing Blog.

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9 replies »

  1. I underwent a heart ablation in the summer of 2009 to correct an atrial fibrillation condition that was detected several years earlier but was not controlled effectively via drug therapy. The procedure was performed without complications by Dr. Saumil Oza and his team at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, and after a brief period of recuperation I resumed normal activity.

    Within a matter of days, I realized that “normal” had a new meaning. I had lived with the atrial fibrillation for years, and it took the ablation and resulting corrected heart rhythm to bring about a marked surge in my energy level with less fatigue and an overall sense of “fitness.” I have always maintained an active lifestyle, but post-ablation I was able to increase significantly my exercise regimen. I now run 2-3 miles three times a week and include modest weight training to keep my upper body toned.

    I was struck by the professionalism of Dr. Oza and the ablation team, and the coordination between his team and my cardiologist Dr. Steven Nauman at St. Vincent’s. The ablation itself is minimally invasive considering that it is correcting an abnormality inside the heart itself, and the recovery period was brief and generally comfortable. I would readily recommend it, along with Dr. Oza and his team, to anyone qualifying as a candidate to correct atrial fibrillation.

    I found out more information by visiting http://www.myfastheartbeatjax.com and calling St. Vincent’s Medical Hospital at 1(888) 418-4754.

    Jim McGauley, Publisher

    The Baker County Press

  2. “That’s what happens when the rules of civilization get traction. Lawlessness and caprice become harder to institutionalize.” – I totally agree!

  3. I don’t know what all the comments above are about. All I got from Dr. Rich’s entertaining post was that physicians certified in cardiovascular medicine are capable of practicing in any field they choose, and due to recent circumstances, they may do just that.
    Well, primary care is one such field, and there will be no need for barbaric violence in order to gain access. I am pretty sure that the locals will welcome the invaders and happily share the wide open spaces and the plentiful bounty of primary care.

  4. Tim,

    I didn’t suggest that cardiologists (or other specialists) are going to like the new regime any more than primary care physicians have enjoyed their subjugation. They may fight harder, but as employers stop paying as readily for unnecessary services, and the government starts financially incentivizing appropriateness and use of evidence, their ability to co-opt the system will diminish quickly.

    That’s what happens when the rules of civilization get traction. Lawlessness and caprice become harder to institutionalize.

  5. “DrRich fantasizes a plain of endless FFS, where the riches never end. That’s the world of 2000, not 2015. The pendulum is swinging the other way now. Purchasers can use data to see who is over-reaching. A few may escape notice for a while longer, but for the most part, they’re toast, an anachronism that will be annihilated by the progress of a more evolved, smarter market.”

    Right. When the corn is all gone, the hungry will fight less. I hear the ghost of Woodrow Wilson purring that the world is now safe for democracy.

    But on to unrelated news: primary care has decided to take over its rightful corn field, the RUC. “Data” will make this a non-violent and righteous victory.

  6. What Doctor Rich is explaining in 2835 words is the balloon effect of medical economics.

    If you press down on the top of the main cardiology financial balloon, as the CMS is doing on by slashing cardiology fees for stents and implantable pacemakers, secondary balloons begin to pop out below as cardiologists expand their interests to other organ systems in order the maintain the overall volume of the balloon.

    There are three morals to this tale:

    • One, the heart supplies all other organs, therefore the entire body falls and diseases of all organ systems falls within cardiologist’s balloon. The cardiologist is no buffoon..

    • Two, broad minded cardiologists do not suffer from hardening of the categories. They do not restrict their attention to hardening of the arteries.

    • Three, old cardiologists never die, they just resort to coronary bypass procedures.

  7. DrRich writes an entertaining post, but the day of the barbarian cardiologist is drawing to a close. Specialists of all types, manipulating the payment system to advantage through an unholy alliance between the AMA’s RUC and CMS, have exhausted our ability to pay without limit. The mauraders may arrive, but the corn is gone, and there is no plunder left. It’s a bummer when there’s nothing to pillage.

    DrRich fantasizes a plain of endless FFS, where the riches never end. That’s the world of 2000, not 2015. The pendulum is swinging the other way now. Purchasers can use data to see who is over-reaching. A few may escape notice for a while longer, but for the most part, they’re toast, an anachronism that will be annihilated by the progress of a more evolved, smarter market.

    In other words, DrRich, as bombastic as he is verbose, doesn’t have a clue that the conditions that allowed plunder in the past have changed. The cardiologists’ days of excess, like Mubarek’s, is over.

  8. Lynn, you missed the central point that there are more and less aggressive specialties. Some have more history of encroachment than others

  9. Dr Rich, I think you obviously need a PET scanner to further your diagnostic toy box. Get thee at PET.

    By Dr Rich’s logic, psychiatrists should be ruling the world because all of us are somewhere in the DSM…..