Optimal Screening Methods to Detect Cardiac Disorders in Athletes: An Evidence-Based Review

J Athl Train. 2017 Dec;52(12):1168-1170. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-52.11.24. Epub 2017 Nov 20.


Reference/Citation: Harmon KG, Zigman M, Drezner JA. The effectiveness of screening history, physical exam, and ECG to detect potentially lethal cardiac disorders in athletes: a systematic review/meta-analysis. J Electrocardiol. 2015;48(3):329-338.

Clinical question: Which screening method should be considered best practice to detect potentially lethal cardiac disorders during the preparticipation physical examination (PE) of athletes?

Data sources: The authors completed a comprehensive literature search of MEDLINE, CINAHL, Cochrane Library, Embase, Physiotherapy Evidence Database (PEDro), and SPORTDiscus from January 1996 to November 2014. The following key words were used individually and in combination: ECG, athlete, screening, pre-participation, history, and physical. A manual review of reference lists and key journals was performed to identify additional studies. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) guidelines were followed for this review.

Study selection: Studies selected for this analysis involved (1) outcomes of cardiovascular screening in athletes using the history, PE, and electrocardiogram (ECG); (2) history questions and PE based on the American Heart Association recommendations and guidelines; and (3) ECGs interpreted following modern standards. The exclusion criteria were (1) articles not in English, (2) conference abstracts, and (3) clinical commentary articles. Study quality was assessed on a 7-point scale for risk of bias; a score of 7 indicated the highest quality. Articles with potential bias were excluded.

Data extraction: Data included number and sex of participants, number of true- and false-positives and negatives, type of ECG criteria used, number of cardiac abnormalities, and specific cardiac conditions. The sensitivity, specificity, false-positive rate, and positive predictive value of each screening tool were calculated and summarized using a bivariate random-effects meta-analysis model.

Main results: Fifteen articles reporting on 47 137 athletes were fully reviewed. The overall quality of the 15 articles ranged from 5 to 7 on the 7-item assessment scale (ie, participant selection criteria, representative sample, prospective data with at least 1 positive finding, modern ECG criteria used for screening, cardiovascular screening history and PE per American Heart Association guidelines, individual test outcomes reported, and abnormal screening findings evaluated by appropriate diagnostic testing). The athletes (66% males and 34% females) were ethnically and racially diverse, were from several countries, and ranged in age from 5 to 39 years. The sensitivity and specificity of the screening methods were, respectively, ECG, 94% and 93%; history, 20% and 94%; and PE, 9% and 97%. The overall false-positive rate for ECG (6%) was less than that for history (8%) or PE (10%). The positive likelihood ratios of each screening method were 14.8 for ECG, 3.22 for history, and 2.93 for PE. The negative likelihood ratios were 0.055 for ECG, 0.85 for history, and 0.93 for PE. A total of 160 potentially lethal cardiovascular conditions were detected, for a rate of 0.3%, or 1 in 294 patients. The most common conditions were Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome (n = 67, 42%), long QT syndrome (n = 18, 11%), hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (n = 18, 11%), dilated cardiomyopathy (n = 11, 7%), coronary artery disease or myocardial ischemia (n = 9, 6%), and arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (n = 4, 3%).

Conclusions: The most effective strategy to screen athletes for cardiovascular disease was ECG. This test was 5 times more sensitive than history and 10 times more sensitive than PE, and it had a higher positive likelihood ratio, lower negative likelihood ratio, and lower false-positive rate than history or PE. The 12-lead ECG interpreted using modern criteria should be considered the best practice in screening athletes for cardiovascular disease, and the use of history and PE alone as screening tools should be reevaluated.

Keywords: electrocardiogram; risk management; sudden death.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Athletes*
  • Electrocardiography
  • Heart Diseases / diagnosis*
  • Humans
  • Mass Screening / methods*
  • Physical Examination
  • Prospective Studies
  • Reproducibility of Results