Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Medicine and the Media

Does a popular documentary about a “life saving” heart scan promote overtreatment?

BMJ 2015; 351 doi: (Published 05 October 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;351:h4926
  1. Jeanne Lenzer, associate editor, The BMJ
  1. jlenzer{at}

A new documentary film, The Widowmaker, has split the cardiology community with its enthusiastic promotion of coronary computed tomography scanning. The dramatic, 93 minute film has made its way on to Netflix, Amazon instant play, iTunes, GooglePlay, and other media platforms. Director Patrick Forbes uses big name celebrities (Gillian Anderson and Larry King), an emotive narrative, and decisive editing to drive home the film’s central claim: that millions of young, healthy, asymptomatic people have unexpectedly dropped dead from myocardial infarction and most of these deaths could have been prevented by screening for coronary calcium using CT scanning.

The documentary has received rave reviews in the US. The Hollywood Reporter opined that the scans “have been opposed for years by the health care industry for reasons that have far more to do with commerce than science.” A reviewer in Los Angeles Times described it as “lucid and important work.”

The only note of uncertainty came from Neil Genzlinger, the New York Times reviewer, who praised the film as “commendable” but also wrote, “the film’s only problem is that it may leave you so skeptical that you’re not sure you’re getting the unbiased story on the scan, either.”

The storyline of the film is simple: the bad guys are greedy “interventionists” who want to profit from treating people with advanced coronary disease; the good guys are the “preventionists,” like the film’s protagonist, Matthew Budoff, who has championed calcium CT scanning as …

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