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Technologies transforming heart care: digital opportunities in imaging - Heartscan

Over the next few months we will be exploring the technologies that are transforming the world of heart care in an effort to keep our hearts healthy and happy for longer than ever before. From 3D printing to nanomedicine, technology is taking over medicine, providing medical professionals with possibilities never previously dreamed of. So how are these technological developments impacting heart care and which new technologies are the ones to watch for improving our heart health in the future?

What better way to start part one of our blog series than with taking a look at imaging, Heartscan’s passion – how can we see inside our hearts and what do these technologies allow us to learn about how our hearts are working?

From the first time a doctor listened to a heartbeat with a stethoscope, to the birth of the ECG (electrocardiogram) to provide an electrical trace, the development of techniques to enable doctors to see into our hearts without having to perform complicated, and possibly life-threatening, operations has had an enormous impact on the ability to diagnose and manage heart conditions.

Currently, hospitals and clinics utilise a range of imaging technologies to gain information about the heart and it’s functioning. These include:

Computerised Tomography (CT/CTA): using x-rays to find abnormalities, in particular blood vessel diseases

Nuclear imaging (PET): to analyse blood flow

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): using technology consisting of powerful magnets and radio wave signals to look at the structure and function of the heart, particularly the health of the soft tissues

Echocardiography: using an ultrasound scan to assess the structure and function of the heart, blood flow and pressure, and state of the heart valves (to find out more about echocardiograms, read our blog here)

Many improvements have been made to these techniques since their first development, but now two key digital technologies are providing the opportunity to open up the doors to a new age for heart imaging.

Miniature and wearable devices

Many researchers are focusing on reducing the size of technologies that give key information about how the body is working; making medicine more portable, accessible and affordable. In heart care, handheld echocardiography in particular has seen a boom in its popularity in recent years, providing clinicians with an opportunity to quickly assess a patient in any environment.

In many disciplines this reduction in the size of technology has also resulted in the opportunity to develop wearable devices for self-monitoring, or to provide data for a patient without them having to be in hospital. Most recently, developments have been made to basic heart rate monitoring systems in next-generation watches to enable them to give a full ECG examination in a matter of moments, through the addition of a phone app.

Artificial intelligence

What some consider as the next stage on from wearable devices and apps is the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) into heart imaging technologies. Researchers believe that the inclusion of artificial intelligence, or more specifically ‘machine learning’, into imaging technologies could improve the accuracy of diagnoses, reduce time to diagnosis and even give indications of the likely outcome for a patient.

These ‘intelligent’ technologies can be ‘taught’ to make predictions about a person’s prognosis by inserting information on thousands of patients and giving them instructions on how to process the information, through an algorithm. These systems will not only be able to give accurate outlooks for a patient’s treatment, taking into account many other factors than just their heart structure, but may also be able to identify very minor problems not previously picked up by doctors through conventional imaging techniques.

Read part two of our  ‘Technologies Transforming Heart Care’ series here.