Focus on: Imaging techniques

Illustration of doctor with a camera looking at the heart

Modern technology means radiologists can now take a virtual tour of a beating heart. Our medical editor Judy O’Sullivan gets expert advice on the latest imaging techniques from Dr Deepa Gopalan, Consultant Cardiovascular Radiologist at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge.

Fifty years ago, if you turned up at your GP’s surgery complaining of symptoms that suggested a heart condition, doctors were largely dependent on the stethoscope. After an initial examination, you may then have been sent to hospital for a chest x-ray and an electrocardiogram (ECG) to trace your heart rhythm.

These tools gave doctors useful but limited information. They’re still essentials in every cardiologist’s kit, but these days the availability of highly sophisticated scans and doctors who specialise in interpreting these images mean that the beating heart can now be examined in much greater detail. The high-tech colourful images produced give doctors better information to make a diagnosis, understand the cause of a disease, assess its severity and in some cases predict how it’s likely to progress.

There’s no such thing as a perfect test in medicine – each method has its pros and cons and it’s just a case of choosing the best option for each situation.

Beware private screening

Both cardiac magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computerised tomography (CT) scans, which show pictures of the heart, are non-invasive. This means there’s no tube or probe inserted into the body, unlike a coronary angiogram when a catheter is inserted into the coronary arteries.

Invasive tests are generally considered to be riskier than non-invasive types, but that doesn’t mean that non-invasive tests are risk-free. For instance, a CT scan of the coronary arteries involves high levels of radiation, and may require medications to change the heart rate or the injection of a dye into the arteries, which bring their own risks.

So no scan should be carried out unless absolutely necessary.

Worryingly, many private healthcare companies are offering non-invasive scans to the public, without making it clear that there are risks involved. If you’re considering this, ask your GP to explain the pros and cons. There may be a more suitable test, such as an NHS heart health check, which will be more useful and safer.

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