Former president George W. Bush, widely regarded as a model of physical fitness, received a coronary artery stent Aug. 6. Few facts are known about the case, but what is known suggests the procedure was unnecessary.
Before he underwent his annual physical, Bush reportedly had no symptoms. Quite the opposite: His exercise tolerance was astonishing for his age, 67. He rode a bike more than 30 miles in the heat on a ride for veterans injured in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If Bush had visited a general internist practicing sound, evidence-based care, he would not have had cardiac testing. Instead, the doctor would have conducted age-appropriate cancer screening. For the former president, this would include only colon cancer screening. It no longer would include even prostate-specific antigen testing for cancer. The doctor would have screened for cholesterol, checked for hypertension and made sure the patient was up to date on age-appropriate vaccinations, including those for pneumococcal pneumonia and shingles. Presumably, Bush got these things, and he got the cardiac test as well.
What value does a stress test add for an otherwise-healthy 67-year-old? No study has shown that this examination improves outcomes. The trials that have been done for so-called routine stress testing examined higher-risk patients. They found that performing stress tests on people at high risk of cardiovascular disease may detect blockages but does not improve symptoms or survival. Routine stress testing does, however, increase the use of procedures such as coronary stenting.
Unfortunately, Bush, like many VIPs, may be paying the price of these in-depth investigations. His stress test revealed an abnormality, prompting another test: a CT angiogram. This study showed a blockage, which was stented open during an invasive procedure. It is worth noting that at least two large randomized trials show that stenting these sorts of lesions does not improve survival. Because Bush had no symptoms, it is impossible that he felt better after these procedures.
Instead, George W. Bush will have to take two blood thinners, aspirin and Plavix, for at least a month and probably a year. (The amount of time a blood thinner is needed depends on the type of stent placed.) While he takes these medications, he will have a higher risk of bleeding complications with no real benefit.
Although this may seem like an issue important only to the former president, consider the following: Although the price of excessive screening of so-called VIPs is usually paid for privately, follow-up tests, only "necessary" because of the initial unnecessary screening test, are usually paid for by Medicare, further stressing our health-care system. The media coverage of interventions like Bush's also leads patients to pressure their own doctors for unwarranted and excessive care.
Vinay Prasad is a chief fellow of medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health. Adam Cifu is a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.