Given renewed interest in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease, we comprehensively reviewed the utility of the electrocardiogram (ECG) for screening considering the seminal epidemiologic studies. It appears that conventional risk factors relate to long-term risk, while ECG abnormalities are better predictors of short-term risk. For individual ECG abnormalities as well as for pooled categories of ECG abnormalities, the sensitivity of the ECG for future events was too low for it to be practical as a screening tool. This almost certainly relates to the low prevalence of these abnormalities. However, all ECG abnormalities increase with age and pre-test risk. Also screening with the ECG is of minimal cost and likely to decrease further as stand-alone machines are replaced by integration into personal computers (PC). Another potential impact on performing screening ECGs would be distribution and availability of digitized ECG data via the World Wide Web. For clinical utility of ECG data, comparison with previous ECGs can be critical but is currently limited. PC based ECG systems could very easily replace many of the ECG machines in use that only have paper output. PC-ECG systems would also permit interaction with computerized medical information systems, facilitate emailing and faxing of ECGs as well as storage at a centralized web-server. Web-enabled ECG recorders similar to the new generation of home appliances could follow this quick PC solution. A serious goal for the medical industry should be to end the morass of proprietary ECG digital formats and follow a standardized format. This could lead to a network of web-servers from which every patient's ECGs would be available. Such a situation could have a dramatic effect on the advisability of performing screening ECGs.
Copyright 2001 by W.B. Saunders Company.