From the time-honored stethoscope to the century-old electrocardiogram, doctors have relied on a number of tools to diagnose heart disease.
But now, a new generation of noninvasive cardiac imaging methods is yielding information about the heart never dreamed possible before—all without incisions or other invasive means.
Top One Percent
Using this state-of-the-art technology, doctors at the MemorialCare Heart and Vascular Institute (MHVI) evaluate thousands of patients every year. A national leader in noninvasive cardiac imaging, MHVI is ranked in the top 1 percent of California’s 500 hospitals for cardiovascular care. With noninvasive cardiac imaging a wide range of heart problems can be identify safely, quickly and accurately so patients receive the most timely and effective care possible.
For example, echocardiography is a noninvasive procedure that uses sound waves to show the structure and function of the heart and heart valves from different angles. This includes the heart’s pumping capacity and synchronization. When used with an exercise stress test, echocardiography can identify blood flow blockages caused by coronary artery disease. In some cases, cardiologists may order a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE). This test involves passing an ultrasound transducer through the mouth and into the esophagus—a strategy that produces very clear images of the heart and valves.
MHVI specialists utilize the most advanced form of echo—3-D echocardiography—which provides detailed, three-dimensional views of the heart in real time. This technology is currently being used for all valve surgeries, as well as many routine cardiac bypass operations.
Imaging the Heart
Cardiac CT is another diagnostic mainstay for cardiologists. Using a 64-slice CT scanner, doctors at MHVI are able to capture images of the heart’s structures in extraordinary detail, including the coronary arteries. In fact, the machine is used to rule out heart attacks in emergency room patients with chest pain. Images produced by the 64-slice CT scanner yield a level of detail comparable to cardiac angiography—an invasive method of assessing the heart. In fact, CT scans can reveal tiny calcium deposits on the walls of coronary arteries—a marker for heart disease. This allows patients without symptoms to get early treatment.
Cardiac MRI is another diagnostic strategy used by cardiologists. MRI doesn’t expose patients to ionizing radiation. It’s especially helpful for assessing areas damaged by a heart attack, checking out the heart’s main arteries and taking a three-dimensional look at the heart muscle and the sac that surrounds it.
New noninvasive imaging methods are yielding information about the heart never dreamed possible before.
Positron emission tomography (PET) is also a powerful tool in the cardiologist’s arsenal of diagnostic technology. Requiring a small amount of radioactive tracer, this type of scan is especially useful because conditions such as obesity don’t distort images. PET measures blood flow in the heart, identifying blocked coronary arteries. The test also reveals areas of the heart that have been damaged by a heart attack, but are still capable of recovery. A combined PET/CT scan can also be used, which provides a comprehensive look at the structure and function of the cardiovascular system and is an established way to diagnose and manage many types of heart disease.