Physicians Need to Follow Student Athlete Heart Screening Guidelines

It’s tragic when a seemingly healthy student athlete is felled by an unknown heart issue. About one in 44,000 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athletes suffers sudden cardiac death each year, according to a 2011 study in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.

So why are so few doctors following the sudden cardiac death screening guidelines for student athletes?

Less than 6 percent of doctors said they completely follow national sudden cardiac death screening guidelines during physicals for high school athletes, reported researchers at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2011. Their study was based on a survey of Washington state physicians and athletic directors.  Less than half of the doctors and only 6 percent of the athletic directors reported being aware of the guidelines. Athletic directors surveyed said their schools did not require compliance with all guidelines.

The American Heart Association advocates a 12-step screening process to help reduce sudden death in young athletes. “The Recommendations for Preparticipation Cardiovascular Screening of Competitive Athletes” first appeared in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association in 1996 and was published again in 2007.

The guidelines recommended that every athlete give a detailed personal and family medical history and have a thorough physical exam before participating in sports. The complete guidelines can be found at

“The American Heart Association regards cardiovascular screening for athletes as an important public health issue, for which there are compelling ethical, legal and medical grounds,” said Ralph L. Sacco, M.S., M.D., president of the American Heart Association.

Kimberly Harmon, M.D., a clinical professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of the 2011 NCAA study, stresses the importance of school AEDs. She recommends that automated external defibrillators be placed in venues where the highest-risk sports are played. Her study found that basketball had the highest risk of sudden cardiac death, with a rate of one in 11,394, followed by swimming, lacrosse, football and cross-country track.

The NCAA publishes heart-health awareness material for student athletes and promotes early recognition of sudden cardiac arrest with its Cardiac 3-Minute Drill.
For a list of affordable heart screening events offered by Parent Heart Watch members, click here.