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Detection of Heart Disease Becoming Safer, Better

Medical imaging and improved computer technology are significantly making the detection of heart disease easier, safer and better. VOA's Paul Sisco reports.

Dr. James Earls is the medical director at Fairfax Radiological Consultants outside Washington, D.C.

Dr. Earls' father-in-law, Gerry Higgs, has high cholesterol and some family history of heart disease. With a new imaging system called SnapShot Pulse, combined with medical scanning technology, Dr. Earls acquires a complete picture of his patient's heart and describes what he sees. "This is a test that looks at the heart and the coronary arteries which are the blood vessels that supply the heart itself with blood."

In seconds, Dr. Earls has 200 thin images of Higgs' heart. A special computer process renders them three-dimensional.

You are looking at an image of Higgs' heart. Here the muscle has been removed, leaving just the critical coronary arteries that bring blood to it.

Dr. Earls explains, "So when people would say they have hardening of the arteries or heart disease itself, what happens is cholesterol and other things get deposited on these small arteries to the muscle of the heart, and we do this three-D [three dimensional] rendering because it helps us look inside these arteries to see if there are any blockages."

The technology to scan and capture images of the heart is about five years old. What is new this year are software modifications that create better images using less radiation -- excessive radiation exposure has been shown to increase cancer risk. The trademarked SnapShot Pulse process benefits the patient and doctor in two ways.

"You get the benefit of lower radiation but then we also get improved quality images at the same time. The improved image quality is important because it allows us to make a better diagnosis or find smaller blockages that we were not able to do in the past," says Dr. Earls.

SnapShot Pulse technology has only been available for worldwide use since June.

"The real power,” says Dr. Earls, “is that this is able to tell you in a very simple non-invasive test if you have heart disease, and if you do, is it mild or moderate or severe? And that is really revolutionizing a lot of cardiology. As a preventative tool it's very powerful."

As for Higgs, only a small amount of non-threatening plaque was discovered, allowing him to leave the center knowing he has a healthy heart.