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Bills Mandate Better Cardiac Screening for Student Athletes

Focus on family histories to reveal predisposition to heart problems seen as more vital than EKGs.

State Sen. Fred Madden (D-Gloucester, Camden) on Thursday introduced three bills implementing the recommendations of the New Jersey Student Athlete Cardiac Screening Task Force, which issued a report last month advocating better cardiac screening of student athletes to prevent sudden death from undiagnosed heart conditions.

The task force did not recommend that all student athletes get an EKG, but advocated gathering a complete, accurate family history to identify student athletes at risk from hereditary cardiac conditions. It also endorsed better training for clinicians so they can identify heart problems during a sports physical.

“Through enhanced screening and training we can discover heart conditions in our young people before it is tragically too late,” said Madden, who sponsored 2009 legislation that created the task force. The organization is headed by Dr. Stephen Rice, a specialist in pediatric sports medicine and president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Madden added, “In this day and age, it is simply unacceptable to have students engaging in physical activity without knowing about possible health conditions that could have dire consequences.”

The bills require children’s sudden cardiac events be reported to a statewide database; mandate that health insurers cover an annual physical examination to determine if a student is fit to participate in athletic or camp activities; and call for healthcare professionals who compile the preliminary family medical histories and do physical examinations receive continuing education on how to identify cardiac problems.

Rice said Madden’s bills are a comprehensive response to the task force report. “He covers almost everything that we recommended.” Rice said it’s been estimated that as many as 200 student athletes die of heart attacks during sports events each year in the U.S. “If we can implement what [the Madden bills] have laid out, that will be very helpful.” Rice said he is optimistic that if “we got a better family history and the doctors did a better, more focused, really careful looking and listening, maybe we will catch more people and improve the pretty miserable track record to date of identifying people at risk.” Darla Varrenti is executive director of the Seattle-based Nick of Time Foundation, which she founded six years ago after her son Nick, 16, died in his sleep after playing in a football game.

The foundation promotes awareness of sudden cardiac arrest in young people and provides free screenings. “Our family wanted to tell other families that this happens all the time to young people,” she said. The foundation advocates routine EKGs to screen for heart abnormalities.

Varrenti said getting a thorough family history and doing a physical focused on cardiac problems is critical, but she said this doesn’t happen in many cases. She said New Jersey’s initiatives are a good step. New Jersey “is bringing some awareness to this, which no other state has done at this point.”

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