Benefits vs. Hype in Lifeline Tests

Benefits vs. Hype in Lifeline Tests

CREATED Sep 20, 2006
(Story created: 2/21/06)

What if all it took to save your life from a potentially life-threatening disease was a simple test? Well, according to a company that offers these tests, that's really all it takes. But, some doctors say they are a big waste of money.

Every week around middle Tennessee, you'll find hundreds of people lining up for these so-called life-saving tests.

"They don't begin to tell you everything," said Dr. Tom Naslund, of Vanderbilt Chief of Vascular Surgery.

But more and more doctors including Vanderbilt's chief of vascular surgery are skeptical, even concerned about what the public is really getting from these screenings.

"You need to understand you're purchasing some very limited information," Naslund said.

But Lifeline Screening, the company behind these mobile clinics, says what it offers is simply good preventative medicine. That its four tests can determine whether you're at risk for a stroke, aneurysm, coronary artery disease and osteoporosis.

"If you find out you're at risk for these diseases, then hopefully you'll find out early enough that you don't have to have surgery. You can make lifestyle changes," Lifeline Screening spokeswoman Trish Porter.

But according to the federal government, most people don't need any of these tests, especially if they have no symptoms or family history.

In fact, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force wrote recently that the only test it recommended was the aneurysm screening and even then, only for men ages 65 to 75 who have smoked.

And women, the panel went on to say, should not have any of these tests done.

Yet when we sent a woman in undercover to one of Lifeline's screenings.

She was told she should have all four tests and that $129 comes out of your own pocket because insurance won't pay for Lifeline's tests.

"You're wasting a lot of money," said Dr. Carol Rumack. Rumack works at the American College of Radiology and specializes in ultrasound technology -- the same technology used by Lifeline. Yet, while Lifeline tells folks they're getting a thorough evaluation.

We found Lifeline spends just three minutes or less on each screening.

"There's no way you could have made an anuerysm diagnosis in three minutes. Any of these four tests are going to take at least fifteen minutes," Rumach said.

Rumach is also concerned that none of the screeners here is a credentialed sonographer; meaning they haven't passed rigorous testing to make sure they know what they're doing. Lifeline though insists its employees are all "highly trained."

"They're just making money is the way I look at it. They aren't doing good health care," Rumach said.

But Dave Shanower believes he's alive today because he went to a Lifeline screening two years ago.

"If anybody asked me: 'Do you think it's a good thing?' I'd say: 'Sure,'" Shanower said. "They found that I had a pretty large aortic aneurysm."

And Trish Porter, a Lifeline spokeswoman maintains this happens more than you might think.

"It's a very rewarding position when you meet people that come up to you and say: 'You saved my life,'" Porter said.

The company claims it finds potential health problems in between 8 to 10 percent of the people it screens.

Yet one of the technicians told our undercover patient the number is actually much smaller and finding a serious health problem in a patient, actually quite rare.

Lifeline says what it's doing is giving people important information and peace of mind.

Naslund says people need to remember Lifeline is not their doctor and your health is not the company's top priority.

"They're selling something and the buyer can beware," Naslund said.

Now if you go to a Lifeline screening, and they do find a problem, they're going to tell you to go see your doctor who's going to want to run his own tests. So, Naslund says it makes more sense to skip the screening and go straight to your own doctor for a complete physical.

Your doctor can then determine whether you really need any of these tests. And if he feels you do, most likely your insurance will pay for most, if not all of the cost.