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4,000 echocardiograms performed in the last three years at Harlem Hospital in New York City were never read by a cardiologist due to understaffing, according to an article in The New York Times.

An echocardiogram is a test that uses sound waves to create a picture of the heart. The test shows the size and shape of the patient’s heart, as well as the organ’s function. When viewing this test, a doctor looks for health conditions such as physical damage or abnormalities, impaired function, infection, possible blood clots inside the heart, fluid buildup in the pericardium (the sac around the heart), and problems with the aorta.

A routine record review by Columbia University, who provides doctors to the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) through an affiliate program, found that although the patient’s heart tests had been viewed by technicians, they had never been reviewed by a cardiologist. 200 of the patients have since died and investigators are trying to determine if these deaths were avoidable had the tests been properly handled.

“I don’t think I want to talk about deaths or numbers,” Alan Aviles, President and Chief Executive Officer of HHC, told The New York Times. “I’m sure you can appreciate that over this period of time somebody could have an echocardiogram and they could have died from a motor vehicle accident, from colon cancer, from any number of things. And so making that connection is not something to be taken lightly.”

Doctors at Harlem Hospital were aware of the backlog and had requested more staff from hospital administrators, saying now that the City has unfairly shifted the blame back on them.

After Columbia and HHC reviewed more than half of the 4,000 echocardiograms, they said they saw no indications that these patients needed “follow-up care.” However, a doctor who reviewed the tests, speaking anonymously to the newspaper, said nearly half were abnormal with 20-30% needing immediate medical care.

According to another New York Times article, Harlem Hospital procedure for these echocardiograms required technicians to read the tests and flag those tests that looked abnormal for the doctor’s priority, but those un-flagged also went unread by doctors. HHS has changed its policy to require the reporting of all echocardiograms to doctors within 2 working days.

HHC will notify any patients whose echocardiogram shows a need for medical care. Patients who have questions regarding their echocardiogram at Harlem Hospital can call New York City’s 311.

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