UCL: Superhuman 20 second AI heart tool begins NHS roll-out

The first-of-its-kind AI tool, described in a new paper in the Journal of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance, analyses heart MRI scans in just 20 seconds whilst the patient is in the scanner. This compares to the 13 minutes or more it would take for a doctor to manually analyse the images after the MRI scan has been performed. It also detects changes to the heart structure and function with 40 per cent greater precision and extracts more information than a human can.

Each year, around 120,000 heart MRI scans are performed in the UK. The researchers say that the AI will free-up valuable time of healthcare professionals – saving around 3,000 clinician days every year – so their attention can be directed to seeing more patients on NHS waiting lists, which will ultimately help with the backlog in vital heart care.

The AI will also give patients and doctors more confidence in the results so that they can make better decisions about a person’s treatment and possible surgeries.

The research was funded by the British Heart Foundation.

Lead author of the study Dr Rhodri Davies (UCL Institute of Cardiovascular Science and Barts Heart Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital) said: “Our new AI reads complex heart scans in record speed, analysing the structure and function of a patient’s heart with more precision than ever before. The beauty of the technology is that it replaces the need for a doctor to spend countless hours analysing the scans by hand.

“We are continually pushing the technology to ensure it’s the best it can be, so that it can work for any patient with any heart disease. After this initial roll-out on the NHS, we’ll collect the data, and further train and refine the AI so it can be accessible to more heart patients in the UK and across the world.”

The technology is being rolled out at University College London (UCL) Hospital, Barts Heart Centre at St Bartholomew’s Hospital which is part of Barts Health NHS Trust, and Royal Free Hospital, where it’s now being used on over 140 patients a week.

Following great success, the scientists and cardiologists who have developed the AI plan to extend the roll-out later this year to 40 locations across the UK and globally.

The technology will improve diagnosis and treatment for a multitude of heart conditions. It is designed to diagnose a new heart condition when someone is first assessed for heart disease. It can spot early signs of heart disease – such as after having chemotherapy – which in some cases can cause damage to the heart, and it has the potential to screen for heart conditions in people with a family history of heart disease. The tool also helps doctors to see how patients with heart conditions are responding to their treatment, so they can then make any necessary adjustments.

The team trained the AI to measure the size of the left ventricle (the main pumping chamber of the heart), the thickness of the heart muscle and how well the left ventricle was able to pump blood around the body. They did this using heart MRI scans from 1,923 people – including people with seven different heart conditions at 13 different hospitals and using 10 different models of MRI scanner. The AI was then validated on a further 109 patients who were scanned twice. They found that the AI technology analysed heart MRI scans more precisely than three doctors, removing the issue of subjectivity with human analysis.

Dr Rhodri Davies and his team at UCL and Barts Heart Centre hope to develop the AI even further so that it can quantify heart valve disease and congenital heart defects, which develop in the womb before a baby is born.

Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation and Consultant Cardiologist, said: “This is a huge advance for doctors and patients, which is revolutionising the way we can analyse a person’s heart MRI images to determine if they have heart disease at greater speed.

“The pandemic has resulted in a backlog of hundreds of thousands of people waiting for vital heart scans, treatment and care. Despite the delay in cardiac care, whilst people remain on waiting lists, they risk avoidable disability and death. That’s why it’s heartening to see innovations like this, which together could help fast-track heart diagnoses and ease workload so that in future we can give more NHS heart patients the best possible care much sooner.”

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