What are the limitations of heart screening tests such as an ECG, echocardiogram and treadmill test?

Doctor's Answers 1

Health or heart screening is generally done in asymptomatic individuals who may or may not have pre-existing cardiovascular risk factors (examples include but are not limited to):

  • diabetes,
  • hypertension
  • high cholesterol,
  • sedentary lifestyle,
  • smoking and a significant family history of heart disease.

Electrocardiogram (ECG) is a safe, non-invasive and quick test. It is a 10 seconds snapshot of the electrical activity of your heart.

Useful information that can be obtained are (but not limited to):

  • resting heart rate (too fast/slow or normal range)
  • heart rhythm (regular or irregular)
  • extra (abnormal) heart beats,
  • evidence of pre-existing heart disease (e.g. prior heart attack),
  • possibility of structural abnormalities of the heart (e.g. enlarged heart chambers, thickened heart walls), conduction abnormalities (e.g. heart block).

Limitations are (but not limited to) unable to assess:

  • degree of narrowing of the coronary arteries;
  • patients with complaints of intermittent palpitations;
  • what type of structural abnormalities of the heart;
  • heart valve abnormalities.

Echocardiogram (2DE) is a safe, non-invasive ultrasound study of the heart. It provides information on

  • the heart’s resting function
  • structure,
  • size,
  • valves,
  • wall thickness and surrounding structures near the heart (e.g. aorta, pericardium).

Limitations are (but not limited to) unable to assess:

  • degree of narrowing of the coronary arteries;
  • whether there is abnormal electrical activity of the heart;
  • ischemia of the heart muscles.

Treadmill is a safe, non-invasive functional assessment of the heart using physical exercise as a stressor.

The electrical activity of the heart, blood pressure response and symptoms are monitored whilst the patient runs on a treadmill. Its sensitivity is around 60-70%.

Limitations are (but not limited to)

  • unable to assess degree of coronary artery narrowing;
  • which artery is narrowed (if any);
  • calcification of coronaries.

Do see your cardiologist to find out more on what heart screening test(s) is appropriate for you.

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Answered By

Dr Jipson Quah

General Practitioner

What is the recommended frequency of visits for a health screening according to the different age groups?

One should see your doctor regularly for health screening advice depending on your medical history, age, risk factors and lifestyle. It usually varies from every 3 to 6 months for the elderly and 1 to 2 years for the general adult population. Please see your doctor to be adviced on how often you should be having your checks. If you are at risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, hypercholesterolaemia, or have a family history of cancer, a screening interval of no more than 6 months to 1 year is advised.

Photo of Dr Jipson Quah

Answered By

Dr Jipson Quah

General Practitioner

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