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How doctors are using AI to diagnose a hidden heart condition in kids

Mark Johnson

Washington Post

Jan 16, 2024

Doctor holding stethoscope, medical background

When Kelsey Brown met Mohammed, the 15-year-old Ugandan boy looked terribly worried. He was in the late stages of rheumatic heart disease, which kills about 400,000 people a year worldwide. His scheduled heart surgery to address the illness had been postponed a day.

By this point, fluid that backed up from Mohammed’s heart into his lungs made it so hard to breathe that he had to sleep sitting upright. Brown, a cardiology fellow at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, assumed that he was anxious about undergoing the surgery. But Mohammed told her that he was not scared to face the procedure.

“He was most nervous that his surgery would be canceled and his heart would not be repaired,” Brown said, noting a startling contrast to children in the United States whose understandable fear is the surgery itself.

Now, in an advance that shows the potential of artificial intelligence to aid medicine, researchers at Children’s National have developed a new AI-powered tool for diagnosing rheumatic heart disease long before a patient needs surgery. Collaborating with staff at the Uganda Heart Institute, the team designed a system that will allow trained nurses to screen and diagnose children early on, when they can still be treated with penicillin for less than $1 a year. Early treatment could save thousands from having to undergo surgery.