Unparalleled imaging eliminates surprises

Published on February 26th, 2020 by Christina Echegaray.

Advances in imaging technology have made it easier than ever to detect heart defects before they become problematic and to plan for surgeries before entering the operating room.

Using advanced echocardiography in Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt’s Pediatric Heart Institute, cardiologists can identify congenital heart disease 20 weeks into a pregnancy and place the baby on the operative schedule before birth. Diagnosing the problem early means surgeons and families have more time to prepare and make informed decisions. 

Surgeons now also have the aid of three-dimensional echocardiography, allowing them to construct 3D-printed models of complex hearts to examine complicated pathways and plan corrective procedures. Prior to advances in imaging, those plans had to be determined during the procedure itself.

“We have really innovative imaging techniques that no one else has, to figure out the safest and easiest way to fix things. We don’t open up anybody’s chest and find surprises anymore. It’s safer and results in us being able to do exactly the right thing at exactly the right time,” said David Bichell, MD, William S. Stoney, Jr. Professor of Cardiac and Thoracic Surgery and chief of Pediatric Cardiac Surgery.

The newest addition to the imaging toolbox is virtual reality (VR), where surgeons can “fly into” a patient’s heart at a microscopic level using a VR headset to determine their exact steps for upcoming procedures. The technology, created by previous Children’s Hospital cardiology patients and families through Project Heart, is still in development but is already being used for more complex procedures.

“Cardiac imaging is a big deal before birth, after birth, before surgery and after surgery,” said Bichell. “I think virtual reality and other imaging technologies that are currently on the edge of development will become the standard in the future.”

– by Kelsey Herbers