• Article
  • February 8, 2017

Advancing Care for Children With Heart Defects

Some of the most significant advances in pediatric health care over the last 25 years have enhanced the care of children born with the most common type of birth defect—congenital heart defects (CHDs).

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), CHDs affect nearly 1 percent of births every year in the United States. During this week (February 7-14) each year, Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week is designed to promote awareness and education about this common birth defect. 

Children's hospitals across the country are working to advance the care of these patients—and adopting new technologies to do it. Here's what two hospitals are doing today to take care for kids with CHDs to the next level. 

Tapping virtual reality tools to study CHDs

When diagnosing CHDs—and explaining them to parents who have just learned their child was born with this birth defect—pediatric cardiologists can quickly draw an anatomically correct heart on paper. That includes Matthew Bramlet, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Hospital of Illinois. But these days, he's going 3-D and using virtual reality tools to study CHDs. 

In research published last year, Bramlet and others noted that 3-D printed models are highly valuable in improving the understanding of these (CHD) complex defects, but they require many resources. So the team explored 3-D virtual reality technology to provide a deeper understanding and visualization of cardiac models and to remove the need for a physical, printed model. 

The Children's Hospital of Illinois has used virtual reality technology to assess some patients already. And the research concluded "the virtual reality-based visualization of the heart model shows a great deal of promise to deepen understanding of a patient-specific anatomy and has the potential of becoming an important diagnostic asset in the future."

Using GPS-like technology in cardiac procedures 

Nicklaus Children's Hospital, a part of Miami Children's Health System, is the second pediatric facility in the world to use new medical technology in cardiac procedures that is similar to the global positioning systems (GPS) we use in our cars to help us get from place to place. Used in the cardiac catheterization lab at Nicklaus Children's, the technology allows physicians to see the precise location of specially designed delivery tools and catheters enabled with miniature sensors to navigate within the heart. 

The system uses a low-powered electromagnetic field and enables physicians to see, in real-time, a 3-D image of these tools on pre-recorded fluoroscopy, or a rapid series of X-ray images. Automatic adjustments are made to the pre-recorded images to compensate for changing heart rhythms, breathing and patient movement. By allowing the physician to track devices on pre-recorded fluoroscopy, the technology can help avoid additional fluoroscopy throughout the procedure, which significantly reduces radiation exposure.

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