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Alexa, How's My Heart?

The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Cardiovascular Care

Move aside, Captain Kirk. The light placed on artificial intelligence (AI) in the field of medicine grows increasingly bright, illuminating opportunity across all specialties. It’s a mission fueled with possibility, with promising research already being developed.

Among those paving the way for the future, Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute announced a $25 million gift that will help develop a first-of-its-kind center that utilizes AI and machine learning to advance the study and treatment of cardiovascular disease. The goal is to achieve earlier detection of cardiovascular disease, which will lead to better management and outcomes.

Rethinking the Stethoscope

Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute is pioneering the use of AI for cardiac screening in a study of Eko’s cardiac monitoring platform. The study aims to demonstrate that Eko’s digital stethoscopes and AI algorithms can accurately interpret heart sounds to help screen for pathologic heart murmurs and valvular heart disease.

“If proven effective, Eko’s platform could be a much simpler, lower-cost way to identify patients with heart disease,” says James Thomas, MD, director of the Center for Heart Valve Disease at Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute. “We are looking to support and advance work that broadens access to the best diagnostic tools in health care, regardless of whether a patient lives in the city, a more rural area or even in a remote locale in the developing world. Deep learning provides that expert knowledge, regardless of a patient’s location.”

Despite serving as an icon in medicine for two centuries, the stethoscope can be a challenging tool for healthcare providers to master. It takes a highly trained professional to separate subtle abnormalities from normal heart sounds. Using AI for cardiac screening in the Eko cardiac monitoring platform would allow general practitioners to be able to detect heart murmurs or life-threatening disease. Northwestern Medicine is continuing to explore opportunities to expand the Eko trial.

Better Cardiac Imaging

Northwestern Medicine is also working with Caption Health, a San Francisco-based startup company focused on applying deep learning to ultrasound and cardiovascular imaging. The company’s technology enables the use of AI to obtain and interpret echocardiograms, or ultrasound examinations of the heart.

This type of technology taps into deep learning, an AI method that imitates the human brain in processing data for decision-making and, like the brain, continues to learn as it receives more data. This would allow the use of advanced technology in primary care settings to diagnose heart conditions earlier. Cardiologists could then confirm diagnosis and initiate care sooner.

“Deep learning will have a profound impact in cardiac imaging in the future, and the ability to simplify acquisition will be a tremendous advantage to bring echocardiograms to the point-of-care in primary care offices,” says Patrick M. McCarthy, MD, chief of cardiac surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Training Future AI Specialists in Heart Disease

Another exciting initiative within the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute Center for Artificial Intelligence in Cardiovascular Medicine is a unique collaboration with Northwestern University computer scientists centered on deep-learning techniques. In a first-of-its-kind intensive fellowship, trainees in cardiology and cardiac surgery will learn the tools and techniques of AI programming in a three-month AI “boot camp.” Then, they will spend the remainder of the year applying this methodology to important problems in cardiology.

Alexa, How’s My Heart?

The patient wearables industry, which involves technology synced with your smartphone and other devices, continues to be an area of exploration. Using a deep neural network to access heart rate data, wearables may detect possible irregularities in your heart rhythm. These devices have the potential to read your electrocardiogram (EKG), which measures the electrical activity of your heart.

So while it may sound like a scene from a sci-fi movie, AI is being readily embraced in health care at Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute, and it is sure to play a vital role in the coming years.

Northwestern Medicine Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute