Medical DevicesPreventive MedicineProcedures


Occasionally I’m asked my opinion about the value of mobile ultrasound screening. That’s the big truck that moves from place to place doing screening tests on people. You may have received an advertisement in the mail or an email promotion. Their marketing is very effective so you may have wondered about it, too.

Companies that do these procedures have been in business nearly 30 years, and medical experts and public interest groups have tried their best to discourage the practice for many spurious reasons. However, Life Line Screenings, and companies like them, are alive and well having identified a large group of consumers I call “the worried well,” who find some degree of reassurance from these tests. They are the demographic ignored by Medicare.

Medicare does not pay for screening tests, so these companies saw a niche business that would provide the public with an optional means to obtain screenings at low cost. Direct-to-consumer advertising provides these companies an endless supply of individuals to be screened.

For anywhere from $100 to $250, people are screened for numerous diseases, most of them related to the cardiovascular system. Ultrasound (sonar) is used for the essential screenings, but EKG, bone densitometry, and blood and urine tests are additional options.

Mobile screening companies offer packages that include the following:

Carotid Artery (of the neck) Ultrasound—screened for blockages—to prevent STROKE

Lower Extremity Artery Ultrasound—screened for blockages-to prevent LOSS OF LIMB

Abdominal Aorta (the main artery from the heart) Ultrasound—screened for an ANEURYSM (a ballooning of the artery that can rupture).

Blood Pressure, Height, Weight, Body Mass Index (measure of obesity) are included screenings.

Fingerstick blood tests for CHOLESTEROL and BLOOD SUGAR are done. Some also offer HEMOGLOBIN A1C (Diabetes), PSA (Prostate Cancer), and URINALYSIS.

Optional EKG (heart rhythm test) and BONE DENSITOMETRY (osteoporosis) may be offered.

Customers are allowed to omit certain tests if they so desire.

Citizen activist groups have worked hard to discourage this business because, they say, if something is found, it leads to anxiety and unneeded additional tests. Many of these are false positive tests because mobile ultrasound units are not as sensitive at finding problems as a hospital unit. It is a screening tool, so an abnormal test necessitates additional testing at a hospital to verify screening results. The cost of additional testing may not be covered by Medicare.

This is a profitable business! Payment is made at the time of service, and Medicare and insurance are not involved.

Are these screenings safe and accurate? Safe? Certainly. Accurate? To a degree. They err on the side of finding something rather than missing something, thus leading to other tests to confirm or rule out problems.

Are they cost effective? Absolutely. For under $250 you can have 10 tests that could cost up to $10,000 without insurance.

So, should you have one of these screenings? I say YES!

Medicare in its infinite short-sightedness doesn’t cover preventive services such as these being offered. Screening for these potentially devastating disorders and finding indications of them early is a good thing. Early detection of anything is always better than delaying until something bad happens. It’s too late then.

Four years ago, my wife and I had these screenings done. I had never had any of these ultrasound tests before and was reassured to learn they were normal. Admittedly, I had no risk factors for any of the disorders for which I was being screened so my chances of an abnormal result were small. But knowing I was ok was comforting.

In practice I had a lot of patients who had these screenings and brought their results to me for review. Occasionally, an abnormal screen would prompt additional testing, but never, that I can recall, did this type of screening find a problem bad enough to require surgery or result in a stroke, heart attack or death.

Bottom line: These “screenings” are just that—screenings. They are not intended to be diagnostic tests so don’t despair if they’re abnormal. For a modest fee one can be tested/screened for bad diseases. But even if they’re abnormal, it doesn’t mean you’re headed for trouble. I do recommend them, had them done myself, and think it’s money well spent. But doing them every 3-5 years is often enough. It’s far better to spend $250 on this test than some gimmick diet supplement. Other doctors may disagree, but it’s like changing your oil before it’s due; what harm can it do? I only wish that thirty years ago I had thought of this business myself.






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