Background: Recently published American College of Cardiology (ACC)/American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines state that patients with suspected coronary disease and an intermediate pretest probability are appropriate candidates for exercise ECG, while those with low or high pretest probability are not.
Methods: From 5,103 consecutive patients with symptoms of suspected coronary disease, we evaluated 872 patients who underwent coronary angiography following exercise ECG. Differences in test performance were determined using receiver operating characteristic curve area analysis. A score using age, gender, symptoms, and risk factors was used to classify patients into low, intermediate, and high pretest probability groups.
Results: When patients with inadequate exercise tests were excluded, overall sensitivity and specificity were 70% and 66%, respectively. Only the intermediate pretest probability group demonstrated significant incremental value: pretest vs posttest intermediate, 70 +/- 3 vs 79 +/- 3 (p < 0.0001); low, 71 +/- 6 vs 76 +/- 7 (p = 0.39); and high, 69 +/- 8 vs 75 +/- 7 (p = 0.12). From the low- to the high-probability groups, there was a progressive increase in positive predictive value (21%, 62%, and 92%) and decrease in negative predictive value (94%, 72%, and 28%), respectively. The frequencies of abnormal exercise ECGs were lower in the unselected groups compared with the angiography groups (low, 13% vs 36%; intermediate, 22% vs 53%; high, 36% vs 63%).
Conclusions: Based on the information added by exercise testing to clinical data, these results confirm the ACC/AHA guideline assignments for test selection. However, despite these guidelines, patients with a low pretest probability can be selected for exercise testing with the knowledge that a positive result is infrequent and a negative result carries a very high negative predictive value. Intermediate-probability patients on average carry a significant false-negative rate, suggesting that exercise ECG alone may not be a sufficient screening test in all intermediate-probability patients. Because of poor negative predictive value and a large percentage of negative tests, high-probability patients should undergo coronary angiography as the initial strategy, unless the goal of exercise testing is to assess prognosis.