Are high school heart screenings worth it?

MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — It’s an unthinkable tragedy that has hit West Michigan hard over the last few years: Sudden cardiac arrest in young high school athletes.

Following the heart-related deaths of Wes Leonard, the Fennville basketball star who died after hitting a game-winning shot for his team, and Ryan Fischer, the Grandville hockey captain who passed away in his sleep hours before a state semifinal hockey game, there has been an extra push to make heart screenings in high school athletes mandatory.

“I don’t know that we can say it should be mandatory,” said Dr. Daniel West, a 26 year cardiologist who works at Mercy Health in Muskegon. “I think that the work that we’ve done suggests that we do find individuals who have this problem and we’re going to keep doing them as long as the population in this area wants us to do it.”

West and a large group of volunteers conduct free heart screenings for high school athletes who wanted to make sure they were healthy enough to play sports.

Since they started in 2012, they’ve done 2,596 screenings and found four students with heart issues serious enough to warrant that they stop playing sports. Metro Health, which also offers free heart screenings, has completed 771 screenings on high school athletes and also found just four potential problems.

“We don’t have enough students here to be able to say that we have a statistically significant conclusion that this is or is not something that should be mandatory. It is something that would require a much larger study. For example, we have to screen about a million kids for us to reduce one sudden death episode,” West said.

West said that critics who argue against health screenings in high school athletes typically use cost as part of their debate — so there should be no argument against the free screenings at the Mercy Health Hackley Campus on various Wednesday nights throughout the summer.

“If you take the cost out of the equation, it’s very difficult to argue with because if it’s your son or my son, your daughter or my daughter and if we thought there was something we might do that would identify if that individual was at risk of sudden death, we would be there with our kids,” West said.

He recognized that the screenings aren’t perfect and that they can only identify 60 to 70 percent of high-risk athletes, but said that if the screenings are free and available to those who want it, they’ll continue to do it.

“People are always going to be critical of anything. They’re going to say that you can’t capture, you won’t be able to save, you won’t be able to do this,” West said of critics. “But you know we found things. We found things in children that potentially would’ve been missed for their whole life. You know we have four kids with Wolff-Parkinson White Syndrome, which they got ablation for and they’re probably going to have a nice healthy life.”

Mercy health noted that while the numbers for those who needed additional care after their initial screening is low, they say over 50 percent of the athletes screened showed borderline or high blood pressure and were referred to their primary physician.

Upcoming free heart screenings at the Mercy Health Hackley Campus:

  • Wednesday, July 15, 2015
  • Wednesday, August 5, 2015
  • Wednesday, August 19, 2015

>>Online: Register

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