Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to detect rheumatic heart disease (RHD) with the same accuracy as a cardiologist, according to new research demonstrating how sophisticated deep learning technology can be applied to this disease of inequity. The work could prevent hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths around the world annually.
Developed at Children’s National Hospital and detailed in the latest edition of the Journal of the American Heart Association, the new AI system combines the power of novel ultrasound probes with portable electronic devices installed with algorithms capable of diagnosing RHD on echocardiogram. Distributing these devices could allow healthcare workers, without specialized medical degrees, to carry technology that could detect RHD in regions where it remains endemic.
According to the new research, the AI algorithm developed at Children’s National identified mitral regurgitation in up to 90% of children with RHD. This tell-tale sign of the disease causes the mitral valve flaps to close improperly, leading to backward blood flow in the heart.
To devise the best approach, two Children’s National experts in AI – Dr. Roshanitabrizi and Marius George Linguraru, D.Phil., M.A., M.Sc., the Connor Family Professor in Research and Innovation and principal investigator in the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation – tested a variety of modalities in machine learning, which mimics human intelligence, and deep learning, which goes beyond the human capacity to learn. They combined the power of both approaches to optimize the novel algorithm, which is trained to interpret ultrasound images of the heart to detect RHD.
Already, the AI algorithm has analyzed 39 features of hearts with RHD that cardiologists cannot detect or measure with the naked eye. For example, cardiologists know that the heart’s size matters when diagnosing RHD. Current guidelines lay out diagnostic criteria using two weight categories – above or below 66 pounds – as a surrogate measure for the heart’s size. Yet the size of a child’s heart can vary widely in those two groupings.
Among other challenges, the team had to design new ways to teach the AI to handle the inherent clinical differences found in ultrasound images, along with the complexities of evaluating color Doppler echocardiograms, which historically have required specialized human skill to evaluate.