TUESDAY, May 12, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Screening to detect potentially deadly heart problems in U.S. college athletes saves lives, researchers say.
And it's also cost-effective. "It can be implemented for much less than the cost of a pair of athletic shoes," said study leader Dr. Kimberly Harmon, of the University of Washington School of Medicine, in Seattle.
Sudden cardiac death is the leading cause of death among U.S. college athletes, so checking these athletes for undiagnosed heart problems as part of a general health screening has increased over recent decades.
An electrocardiogram (EKG) is used to measure the electrical output of a person's heartbeat. EKGs can detect potentially serious heart problems, but critics say they result in too many false-positive findings, leading to unnecessary additional tests and costs.
But compared to just a physical exam and patient history, health screenings that include an EKG are more effective at detecting heart conditions that put college athletes at risk, and more efficient in terms of cost-per-diagnosis of at-risk players, the study concluded.
For the study, the researchers analyzed nine years of data from more than 8,600 health screenings of athletes across all varsity sports.
Overall, 11 athletes were found to have potentially serious heart problems.
In the nearly 5,000 screenings that included medical history and a physical exam, two athletes were identified as at risk, for a rate of 0.05% (1 in 2,454). Screening costs averaged $130 per athlete and the cost per diagnosis was $312,407.
In the more than 3,600 screenings that included medical history, a physical exam and an EKG, nine athletes were identified as at risk, for a rate of 0.024% (1 in 410). Per-athlete screening test cost was $152 and cost per diagnosis was $61,712.
The findings suggest that screenings with the addition of an EKG were six times more likely to detect a risky heart condition than screenings with just patient history and physical. EKG use improved the cost efficiency per diagnosis by fivefold, according to the study authors.
"This is a real-world assessment of the discoveries resulting from different screening strategies, and how much they cost," said Harmon, section head of sports medicine at the UW School of Medicine.
"This study shows that screening with EKG is not only significantly more effective, it is only incrementally more expensive overall and costs much less per diagnosis," Harmon said in a university news release.
Men's basketball and football account for more than 50% of sudden cardiac deaths among college athletes, according to background notes with the study.
The findings were published May 4 in the journal Heart Rhythm.
The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more on electrocardiogram.