Know Thy Inner Self
A 3D-scan spots cancer and other health risks before it's too late.
BY WAGNER JAMES AU
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION may be worth a pound of cure, but would you have the courage to subject yourself to an examination so comprehensive it actually shows you the killers lurking inside you? A new procedure from the Newport Beach, California-based Health View Center for Preventive Medicine (www.healthview.com) promises glimpses of your body so precise, you'll know which degenerative diseases (heart disease, cancer, and many others) will eventually do you in. While this seems like a good idea in the abstract, anxiety set in the moment I scheduled an appointment.
The HealthView process is the brainchild of Dr. Harvey Eisenberg and his software development staff, who've been perfecting AngioCAT, a proprietary 3D rendering software, for 15 years. A seasoned cardiovascular radiologist (and former professor of that science at UCLA, Stanford, and Harvard), Eisenberg has worked with 30 modeling since the 19705. Now, nearly three decades later, he has the technology that, he says, "will change the paradigm of the way medicine is practiced," away from vicious circles of crisis management and unreliable annual physicals. "The stethoscope," says Eisenberg, "belongs in the Smithsonian."
New health paradigms, however, provide little comfort as I enter Eisenberg's office. Neither does my family history. My father had a heart attack and subsequent open-heart surgery in his early fifties. All of his siblings have suffered various degrees of cardiac ailments. A cousin, who's barely my senior in his early 30s, has already suffered a mild heart attack. So despite Eisenberg's assurance that "genetics is reversible," I worry that I'm walking into a virtual-but-definitive death sentence.
Eisenberg's model for the future of health care begins with an EBCT (Electron-Beam Computed Tomography) scanner. The process is no more invasive than losing my shirt to have EKG electrodes tagged on my chest, a 15-minute procedure. The real application of the technology happens when a battery of high-resolution monitors displays the AngioCAT rendering technology. The first demonstration reminds me of the special effects from Hollow Man in reverse: Starting with my skeletal torso, my organs are added to the image, then the muscle, then the layers of skin. During the analytical stages of the process, Eisenberg stops at each sector and searches for early signs of health hazards. These stages are conducted in fully detailed, rotatable, 3D cross-sections. He brings up a gray-scale cross-section of my heart and the nearby arteries. If I'm on my way to cardiac risk, cholesterol-induced calcium deposits will glow white on my screen.
Instead, my arteries are smooth and unblemished. Suddenly my preference for seafood and olive oil over red meat and butter seems like the wisest choice I've ever made. "Your lungs are beautiful," Eisenberg says as we move to a rotating cross-section of my respiratory system. But then, a flaw: increasing the magnification, he spots a tiny nodule in my left lung, only 3mm in size. Since I don't smoke, he is 98 to 99 percent certain that it's benign and schedules a check-up for six months later.
Moving down to my lower organs - he pauses to note the beginning of a bulging lower disk in my vertebrae and recommends seeking a physical therapist - he spots a slightly inflamed prostate. "Too many orgies," he jokes wryly. Rotating the image, he points to the black cavity that is my rectum, and notes that if he were to do the same prostate exam in a standard physical, "this would be my finger up here."
Within a few hours, I have a very reliable, comprehensive road map for my future health, with most of the possible dangers laid out before me while there's still time to correct them. The onset of emphysema, he says, can be divined 20 to 30 years in advance; the rumblings of potential heart failure, 30 or 40 years prior. (The clinic also offers treatment and education services, applying HealthView findings to alter the patient's diet and lifestyle as necessary.) Sometimes discoveries are precariously immediate. Eisenberg once found a grapefruit-size tumor that was overlooked in a physical only one week earlier. For another patient, the process caught a breast tumor that eight previous mammograms missed.
HealthView currently runs two clinics (the other is at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, DC.), though Eisenberg hopes to open 45 to 50 more in the next few years. To ensure that it's affordable, the average examination cost is only $700. But before the technology can shape how we practice medicine today, it must pass the Byzantine cost-analysis models of health management organizations. Most HMOs won't cover the HealthView process. "They want to pay for symptoms," Eisenberg says with palpable annoyance. "They don't want to pay for screenings."
The economic virtue of preventing, say, a six-figure bill for open-heart surgery with a three-figure examination seems totally obvious. Apparently not. "HMOs have their heads deeply in the sand," Eisenberg says. He notes that most non-HMO plans will cover some of the test (with a doctor's referral) and that companies can demand that it be included in their coverage to help ensure the long-term health of their employees.
It sounds like a Westernized application of holistic medicine principles. "And what's wrong with that?" Eisenberg responds affably. Most other cultures already grasp such principles of good health. "We're too distracted by our environment to realize this."
WAGNER JAMES Au is a San Francisco-based freelance writer.