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“If it saves even one life…”

October 7, 2004

Thursday, October 07, 2004 copied from my old blog, The Ballpoint Sketch

Headline: “Death of teenager spotlights rare heart ailment; Screenings urged for young athletes” (Chicago Tribune).

The story describes a Naperville teen athlete who died of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy following a sports event.

High school athletes must undergo physical exams each year to participate in sports, but there is no requirement that their hearts be scanned.

That is a mistake, said Larry Scire, director of sports medicine at Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, which began screening the hearts of athletes at seven area high schools and three colleges last year.

“With a normal physical, you would never detect this,” Scire said. “This is a structural anomaly that can only be seen through an ultrasound of the heart, which is an EKG.” (Wrong. I’ve had both procedures, and they’re different things. -DOF)

Scire said such screenings can cost as much as $600 a patient…

“If we save one life, it will make the whole program worth it,” he said. [Emphasis mine]

This is a good example of the high cost of trying to achieve a “safe” world. After all, you can’t put a price on human life, can you?

Sure you can.

The condition that afflicted Jones is extremely rare. New York pediatrician Eric Small, who specializes in youth sports medicine, said there are four to 10 deaths attributable to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy a year. There are more than 12 million student athletes in the country, he notes.

Let’s see: 12 million student athletes times $600 per test. That’s a cool $7.2 billion, with a “b,” or $720 million per life saved… assuming the procedure saved every life.

You can start putting a price on human life when the cost of each one saved is so high that it could save many more if it were used in other ways. Pre-natal screening, smoking abatement, drug rehab, E911 ambulance dispatching, homeland security, or even just healthier food in school cafeterias would probably save more lives.

The phrase, “If it saves even one life…” sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it. The public purse is limited: it can’t abate every risk. The parent who is tempted to say, “You wouldn’t say that if it was your own kid” is welcome to pay for his own child’s scan.

Urgent news stories seem calculated to make you feel like a monster if you reach for the calculator and start punching buttons. But Kurt Gibson, associate executive director of the IHSA says the association added several questions to its athletics registration form to help detect undiagnosed heart problems. And Dr. Vince Bufalino, president and medical director at Edward Cardiovascular Institute at Edward Hospital in Naperville, said “This is a debate of economics. You can scan everyone, but where is the value?”

It’s nice to hear a voice of reason over the hand-wringing.

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