Your Health A-Z

The future – and challenges – of cardiovascular imaging

Just 50 years ago, the only scientific tools doctors had to diagnose cardiovascular conditions were the stethoscope and a simple electrocardiogram. Medical technology has advanced at a rapid pace over the last few decades, speeding up diagnosis, treatment methods and outcomes for patients.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in developed countries, with an estimated 17 million people dying every year from coronary artery disease (also known as ischemic heart disease) or stroke. Early detection and diagnosis of the condition plays an enormous role in the outcome for patients, and for this reason technological advancements in the field are important and ongoing.

Cardiac magnetic resonance (CMR) imaging, also known as cardiac MRI, is the latest technique used for viewing your heart and major blood vessels. It enables a non-invasive assessment of the function and structure of your entire cardiovascular system, providing excellent soft tissue contrast, good 3D capabilities, and the ability to view the image from any angle. Importantly, MRI does not expose you to ionizing radiation, so is completely safe.

The field of diagnostic imaging has advanced more rapidly than any of the other disciplines in clinical medicine, says Professor Leonie Scholtz, South Africa’s foremost expert in cardiovascular diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine.

“This is mainly due to the rapid technological advances of hardware and software that have taken place over the past 50 years, enabling faster image acquisition, better resolution and improved diagnostic applications and accuracy,” says Scholtz.

3D imaging and printing, including holographic imaging, are two of the exciting new developments currently being researched.

“Holographic imaging looks promising and might change the way the cardiac structures will be imaged in future. The potential is huge, especially when it comes to its possible application in the surgical setting, such as in the manufacturing of 3D-printed prosthetic valves and for guiding minimally-invasive procedures, both on site and for remote robotic surgery,” Scholtz explains.

There are, however, challenges facing advancements in medical technology that would make diagnosis of heart problems simpler, more efficient, more reliable and more cost effective. The biggest challenge is cost.

“Unfortunately, diagnostic imaging is not simple. It is complex, requires highly trained experts and expensive equipment.”

“One way of achieving a more effective environment is by devising screening programmes in rural areas where patients can be screened for possible cardiac disease. This would also help increase awareness around cardiovascular disease. At-risk patients could then be referred to centres of excellence.”

Scholtz believes proper and appropriate screening would have a beneficial overall reduction in healthcare costs to the tax payer. Risk assessment and adequate prevention are other ways of preventing the expensive outcome of treating the often disastrous effects of debilitating cardiovascular disease,” says Scholtz.

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