By Dr. Nick West
As millions of Americans living with heart conditions know only too well, the important task of pumping hundreds of gallons of blood around the body each day can be derailed by a variety of issues, including narrowed heart arteries, cardiac rhythm disturbances or dysfunction of the heart valves or the heart muscle itself.
Luckily, for many of these patients, the cardiac imaging tools that physicians use to diagnose and plan treatments for such heart diseases are constantly evolving, driving changes to physician training methods, to the choice of patient treatments and even to improving outcomes by providing real-time ‘line-of-sight’ guidance. With so many exciting resources at cardiologists’ disposal, the future of cardiac imaging technologies is already here.
Virtual reality and remote techniques for training and proctoring
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In the past, learning to use advanced medical technologies or perform novel procedures could be time-consuming and expensive. One of the unintended consequences of the global COVID-19 pandemic has been the growth in remote methods of teaching and training, and this has been particularly felt in the cardiology space. For novel procedures, several dedicated platforms for remote proctoring have been deployed in a variety of settings to allow life-saving technologies to reach patients in need when in-person/onsite training has not been feasible.
Similarly, to augment traditional teaching that must still take place in person, virtual reality-enabled training programs have also exploded onto the scene: based on technology developed for gaming, such programs have been embraced particularly by the younger, tech-savvy generation of physicians. Accruing evidence suggests that virtual reality training not only provides a tailored and self-paced method of learning, but also improves engagement, knowledge retention and future accuracy in performing the actual procedure that is being trained. Such active and self-directed learning is preferential to passive didactic methods - think of it like this: a pilot wouldn’t learn to fly a plane by watching an instructional video in isolation - they would utilize hours of flight simulation, and such hours ‘behind the wheel’ can, by corollary in a medical sense, yield dividends for patients and physicians alike.
Intracoronary imaging techniques to guide cardiac procedures
Use of dedicated imaging catheters as an adjunct to conventional angiography (x-ray imaging) can assist in the diagnosis and guide the treatment of narrowing coronary arteries during invasive procedures to treat angina. Optical coherence tomography (OCT) is a red light-based imaging technique that captures high-resolution images when the catheter is placed inside the patient’s heart arteries; the high-quality and granular data thus obtained allows physicians to assess anatomy and execute coronary interventions, such as stent placement, with unrivalled precision. Recent data have indicated that use of OCT can alter physician decision-making over conventional x-ray (angiographic) imaging alone in nearly 90% of cases, illustrating the huge potential such technologies have to improve patient care.