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Should high-school and college athletes be routinely screened for heart conditions?

Previous research suggests that requiring electrocardiogram (ECG) screenings for participants of competitive sports may reduce the rate of cardiac deaths among athletes ages 14 to 35. But implementing such a program in the United States has been a point of controversy. The debate over whether young athletes should be pre-screened for heart defects prior to participation centers around the difficulty in interpreting ECG readings and potential health costs associated with misinterpreted results. The Health Blog reports:

While the notion is appealing, and the ECG itself isn't that expensive, the cost of resulting follow-up exams can add up. A study by Stanford cardiologists has shown that screening can be cost-effective, assuming the scans would be interpreted correctly. But it's not at all clear whether there's a properly trained workforce in place to screen all high-school and college athletes, says Stephen Rice, director of pediatric sports medicine at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. "The number of people who are really qualified to read and interpret these with a degree of certainty is limited," he says.

Often athletes' ECG results can be dramatically different from people with a more sedentary lifestyle. A recent Stanford study showed that pediatric cardiologists' accuracy at reading ECGs can be poor.

To reduce the high percentage of false positives in heart screenings for athlete, Stanford researchers worked with cardiology experts worldwide and developed a how-to guide for doctors who may be screening youth athletes for heart defects. The recommendations (subscription required) include a chart with straightforward guidelines designed to unify physician interpretations when searching for signs of possible heart defects.

Previously: ECG screening of young athletes is cost-effective way to save lives, Stanford team writes new recommendations for reading athletes' ECG results and Pediatric cardiologists struggle to interpret athletes' ECGs
Photo by San Francisco Foghorn

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