NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Expensive Heart Device May Help Thousands of Patients

March 15, 2004

A new study has shown that hundreds of thousands of people with heart failure can live longer if they get a cardiac defibrillator surgically implanted. The electronic device is placed under the skin near the shoulder and connects via wire "leads" to the heart. If the heart's rhythm becomes faulty, the device administers an electric shock to encourage the heart back to normal rhythm.

The study looked at "moderately ill" patients who experience extreme shortness of breath and weakness from climbing stairs. Among the findings:

  • Implanted defibrillators prolong life; those with the implanted defibrillator experienced a 23 percent drop in death rates at three years compared to those without the devices.
  • At five years this rate dropped to 19 percent.
  • The devices actually work more effectively than cardiac drugs.

One expert estimates that about 600,000 patients qualify for defibrillators, and among that half are Medicare patients. This study, he says, will add another 600,000, including 300,000 Medicare patients, to the total. Of those who qualify, roughly only 25 percent today actually get the devices, which cost $20,000 just for the machine, plus the surgical and hospital costs.

Source: Thomas M. Burton and Ron Winslow, "The Case Grows for a $20,000 Heart Device," Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2004.

For WSJ text (subscription required),,SB107876311924049194-search,00.html


Browse more articles on Health Issues