SF offering pilot EKG tests for young athletes

April 23, 2009 7:17:12 PM PDT
Next weekend doctors in San Francisco will begin a pilot program to help detect potentially deadly heart conditions in young athletes. If the program is successful, it could influence an ongoing debate over EKG screenings for teenagers around the country.

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Watching Justin Martin move through a light workout, you might never guess that he could have been just a heartbeat away from death earlier this year.

But when he fell faint during a basketball game, doctors ordered an EKG test on his heart.

"They told me that I had an irregular heartbeat and that I couldn't be able to play sports anymore and that if I continued to play sports I'd die of a sudden death," said Martin.

Justin is now being monitored regularly in a cardiac program at UCSF. That's where cardiologist Byron Lee is also getting ready to offer the same EKG screening to hundreds of other high school athletes in San Francisco.

"What we're planning on doing is EKGs and those that have abnormal EKGs, they'll be getting ultrasounds. From this, we plan to pick up relatively few, but some students who have abnormality that puts them at risk for sudden death, and they'll get follow-up treatment," said Dr. Lee.

The pilot program is called PlaySafe, and families in San Francisco are being encouraged to get sign-up information online.

"When you think about being able to save somebody's life when they're young, in their prime, and you can do it cheaply, it seems to me we ought to do it," said Dr. Lee.

But the idea of mandatory testing has been controversial. While countries like Italy require the EKG tests for teenage athletes, groups including the American Heart Association have opposed them, citing the cost and the chance of false positives.

Still recent heart related deaths, like that of Michael Helpin, a football player at Los Gatos High School, have heightened interest in the benefit of EKG screening.

"It's going to be interesting to see how it turns out. I think it'll give us information that will allow us to tweak the argument a little bit," said Dr. Lee.

And in Justin's case, a second examination has offered some hope, that with supervision, he may be able to resume at least limited participation in sports.

"My favorite sports are football, basketball and track, but if I can't play football, I'll play soccer," said Martin.

The EKG screenings are being offered on May 2nd, they are free, but again, only to high school athletes in San Francisco.

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