Taking telemedicine to heart

For seven years, a Children’s National team has worked on new technologies to blunt the severity of rheumatic heart disease around the world, vastly improving patients’ chances of avoiding serious complications.

Rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is caused by repeated infections from the same bacteria that cause strep throat, which progressively lead to worsening inflammation of the heart’s valves with each successive infection. Over time, these valves thicken with scar tissue and prevent the heart from effectively pumping life-sustaining, oxygenated blood. The devastating condition, which was endemic in the United States before 1950, is now so rare that few outside the medical community have even heard of it. But in the developing world, explains Craig Sable, M.D., director of echocardiography and pediatric cardiology fellowship training and medical director of telemedicine at Children’s National Health System, RHD is nearly as common as HIV.

“RHD is the world’s forgotten disease,” Dr. Sable says. An estimated 32.9 million people worldwide have this condition, most of whom reside in low- to middle-income countries — places that often lack the resources to effectively diagnose and treat it.

Dr. Sable, Andrea Z. Beaton, M.D., and international colleagues plan to overturn this paradigm. For the last seven years, the team has worked on developing new technologies that could blunt the severity of RHD, vastly improving patients’ chances of avoiding its most serious complications.

At the heart of their approach is telemedicine — the use of telecommunications and information technology to provide clinical support for doctors and other care providers who often practice a substantial distance away. Telemedicine already has proven extremely useful within resource-rich countries, such as the United States, according to Dr. Sable. He and Children’s National colleagues have taken advantage of it for years to diagnose and treat pediatric disease from a distance, ranging from diabetes to asthma to autism. In the developing world, he says, it could be a game-changer, offering a chance to equalize healthcare between low- and high-resource settings.

In one ongoing project, a team led by Drs. Sable and Beaton is using telemedicine to screen children for RHD, a critical step to making sure that kids whose hearts already have been damaged receive the antibiotics and follow-up necessary to prevent further injury. After five years of working in Africa, the team recently expanded their project to Brazil, a country riddled with the poverty and overcrowding known to contribute to RHD.

Starting in 2014, the researchers began training four non-physicians, including medical technicians and nurses, to use handheld ultrasound machines to gather the precise series of heart images required for RHD diagnosis. They deployed these healthcare workers to schools in Minas Gerais, the second-most populous state in Brazil, to screen children between the ages of 7 and 18, the population most likely to be affected. With each worker scanning up to 30 children per day at 21 area schools, the researchers eventually amassed nearly 6,000 studies in 2014 and 2015.

Each night, the team on the ground transmitted their data to a cloud server, from which Children’s cardiologists, experts in RHD, and a regional hospital, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais, accessed and interpreted the images.

“There was almost zero downtime,” Dr. Sable remembers. “The studies were transferred efficiently, they were read efficiently, and the cloud server allowed for easy sharing of information if there was concern about any questionable findings.”

In a study published online on November 4, 2016 in the Journal of Telemedicine and Telecare, Dr. Sable and colleagues reported the project’s success. Together, the team diagnosed latent heart disease in 251 children — about 4.2 percent of the subjects screened — allowing these patients to receive the regular antibiotics necessary to prevent further valve damage, and for those with hearts already badly injured to receive corrective surgery.

The researchers continued to collect data after the manuscript was submitted for publication. The team, which includes Drs. Bruno R. Nascimento, Adriana C. Diamantino, Antonio L.P. Ribeiro and Maria do Carmo P. Nunes, has screened a total of roughly 12,000 Brazilian schoolchildren to date.

Dr. Sable notes there is plenty of room for improvement in the model. For example, he says, the research team has not found a low-bandwidth solution to directly transmit the vast amount of data from each screening in real time, which has caused a slight slowdown of information to the hospital teams. The team eventually hopes to incorporate RHD screenings into annual health exams at local health clinics, sidestepping potential drawbacks of school day screenings.

Overall, being able to diagnose RHD using non-physicians and portable ultrasounds could eventually help Minas Gerais and additional low- to middle-income areas of the world where this disease remains endemic reach the same status as the United States and other resource-heavy countries.

“We’re putting ultrasound technology in the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have it,” says Dr. Sable, “and it could have a huge impact on their overall health.”

This work was supported by a grant from the Verizon Foundation and in-kind donations from General Electric and ViTelNet.

Fetal Cardiac Health

Managing transposition of the great arteries in the womb

Fetal Cardiac Health

Monitoring and managing fetuses’ heart health in the womb can greatly improve their chances of living long and productive lives

Over the 22 years that Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., has been practicing fetal cardiology, the field has changed radically. The goal once had been simply to offer parents an accurate diagnosis and prepare them for sometimes devastating outcomes. Now, Dr. Donofrio, who directs the Fetal Heart Program and Critical Care Delivery Program at Children’s National Health System, says specialists can follow fetuses throughout the pregnancy and manage many conditions in the womb, greatly improving their chances of living long and productive lives.

Case in point: Transposition of the great arteries, a congenital defect characterized by reversal of the heart’s two main arteries—the aorta, which distributes oxygenated blood throughout the body, and the pulmonary artery, which carries deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs. The single abnormality means that the oxygenated “red” blood flows back to the lungs while deoxygenated “blue” blood flows out to the body.

After birth, when the cord is clamped and the connection to the placenta severed, the baby’s cardiovascular system must adjust. If the fetal connections between the two sides of the heart no longer remain, the brain and other organs in infants with this defect are severely deprived of oxygen. The condition may be fatal if something is not done immediately to reopen the fetal connections to stabilize the circulation before surgery can be done. But if the fetal cardiologist can keep tabs on what’s happening to the heart over time and prepare a specialty team of cardiologists to treat the problem immediately after birth, chances of survival are significantly improved.

More than a decade ago, as a young attending physician, Dr. Donofrio witnessed a case that has stuck with her to this day. The baby’s diagnosis of transposition of the great arteries was not made until shortly before birth. In addition, the two fetal blood flow connections that allow blood to circulate had closed, causing severe heart failure. Although the care team performed an emergency delivery and immediate cardiac procedure, including initiation of a heart-lung machine in the delivery room to try to stabilize the circulation, the baby ultimately died due to complications from a very low oxygen level. “I always wonder what happened,” Dr. Donofrio says. “Was the baby’s heart always that bad and nobody noticed it, or did it change over time?”

In a paper published recently in the Journal of Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine, she and colleagues illustrate the dramatic transformation in care that has taken place in the 14 years since this unforgettable case. The new publication describes the case of a different fetus diagnosed at 22 weeks gestation with transposition of the great arteries in 2015 at Children’s National. Unlike many congenital heart disorders, the heart’s four chambers appear misleadingly normal at the typical mid-pregnancy ultrasound. Despite the challenging diagnosis for many obstetricians, this fetus’ heart condition was recognized early by looking at the arteries leaving the heart in addition to the chambers.

While such a defect is fatal if left untreated, Dr. Donofrio explains there are two pathways that can allow the blood to get to where it needs to go such that the circulation is stabilized and the damage mitigated. One is the fetal blood vessel known as the ductus arteriosus that typically stays open for a day or two after birth. The second is an opening between the heart’s two upper chambers, known as the foramen ovale, which usually closes upon delivery. By keeping those two pathways open, blood can cross from one side of the heart to the other, buying time in the delivery room so that babies can be stabilized before they receive surgery to permanently move the arteries back to their normal position.

In the 2015 case, Dr. Donofrio and colleagues had the chance to monitor the fetus and the fetal heart at follow-up appointments every four weeks after diagnosis. What they saw completely changed the course of their treatment plan and likely saved the baby’s life. With each ultrasound, they saw that the ductus arteriosus and the foramen ovale—the critical connections needed for survival—were gradually closing.

Dr. Donofrio noted at the fetal evaluation at 38 weeks that the structures had closed, and the heart was showing signs that it was not functioning well.  She and her team realized that the only way to save this baby was to deliver earlier than planned and to have cardiac specialists standing by ready to perform a life-saving procedure to open the connections right after the baby was separated from the placenta. The baby was delivered by Cesarean section in the cardiac operating room at Children’s. The cardiac intervention team immediately created a hole where the foramen ovale should have been by using a balloon to open the tissue that had closed. The care team also administered a prostaglandin infusion, a drug that can keep the ductus arteriosis open. This time, however, the medicine did not work. The baby was stabilized with several cardiac medications and, with little time to spare, the cardiac surgeons operated on the one-day-old baby to switch his great arteries back to the normal position, saving his life.

The baby is now 1-year-old, Dr. Donofrio says, and is healthy—a scenario that likely wouldn’t have happened had the fetal team not made the diagnosis and continually monitored the condition in the womb.

“I remember back to that first case when we were really scrambling to do everything we could at the last minute because we didn’t have the information we needed until the very end,” Dr. Donofrio says. “Now, we can spot problems early and do something about it. For me, that’s amazing. We’re making a difference, and that’s a really great thing.”

Newborn pulse oximetry screening: which algorithm is best?

Gerard Martin

There’s a consensus that Pulse oximetry screening (POS) is a proven way to find critical congenital heart defects. But, screenings, specifically the algorithm used, vary. Gerard R. Martin, M.D., Medical Director of Global Health at Children’s National Health System, and Andrew K. Ewer, MD, explore which algorithm is best in their just-published article in Pediatrics. Read more.

Mary Donofrio

Getting to the heart of cardiac malposition with fetal MRI

Mary T. Donofrio, MD, Director of the Fetal Heart Program and Critical Care Delivery Program at Children's National Health System

Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., Director of the Fetal Heart Program and Critical Care Delivery Program at Children’s National Health System

In a small percentage of pregnancies, the fetuses’ hearts develop in the wrong place. In the congenital anomaly known as heterotaxy syndrome that often includes a severe heart defect, the heart is often displaced from its usual position in the left chest. In other instances, the heart starts out in a normal position; however, it is pushed out of its normal position by a mass that grows in the chest cavity, by abnormal development of the lungs, or due to other causes. Although rare, babies born with cardiac malpositions associated with other congenital defects can be the most serious of all possible birth defects.

Sometimes, fetuses with these congenital problems die in the womb. Others do not survive long after birth. In some pregnancies, surgery is performed shortly after childbirth to stabilize the circulation so newborns even have a chance at life.

Correctly diagnosing these cardiac conditions during pregnancy can help doctors and parents alike make the most informed decisions and plan ahead.

However, the tools now used most often to reveal the overall anatomic details of cardiac malpositions — obstetrical ultrasound and fetal echocardiography — often don’t give a full picture. A clear view of the fetus can be obscured by the position of the fetus, insufficient amniotic fluid, or even a mother’s body habitus. Imaging techniques sometimes also have a hard time distinguishing between liver, bowel, and lung because the echogenicity of these tissues — the signature that sound waves make as they bounce back from their targets — is so similar.

“To be able to offer parents the best and most comprehensive counseling, and to begin planning for the type of intensive and multidisciplinary care that many of these babies will require, we need to have access to as much information as we can about each baby, not only relating to the heart but all the other organs as well,” says Mary T. Donofrio, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist who directs the Children’s National Health System Fetal Heart Program and Critical Care Delivery Program. “Unfortunately in some instances, obstetrical ultrasound and fetal echocardiography, the two diagnostic tools used most often in these cases, can be limited in what they tell us.”

What fetal MRI can show

An underutilized technique that gathers more details about the associated abnormalities that often accompany cardiac malposition during pregnancy is fetal magnetic resonance imaging, or fetal MRI, says Dr. Donofrio. Even though this technique is widely used to diagnose other fetal conditions, such as brain anomalies, it’s rarely used to better define the overall anatomy in cardiac malposition.

To determine whether fetal MRI is effective in complementing obstetrical ultrasound and fetal echocardiography, the current standard of care for this condition, Dr. Donofrio and colleagues took a retrospective look at all cases of cardiac malposition in which fetuses were evaluated using MRI between 2008 to 2013 at Children’s National. Their search turned up 42 cases.

Twenty-three cases had been diagnosed with obstetrical ultrasound and fetal echocardiography as having additional abnormalities beyond the heart’s changed position, and 19 had been given the diagnosis of heterotaxy syndrome. Each patient had been assigned to various known subtypes of these conditions, with some classified as having an unknown etiology for the findings.

After fetal MRI, the diagnoses of nearly one-third changed or were better delineated. Seven of the 23 cases of cardiac malposition attributed to an extra cardiac anomaly were reassigned to a cause different from the original diagnosis based on the new, more detailed information provided by fetal MRI, including three in which a complete diagnosis could not be made due to poor visualization by ultrasound. Five of the 19 cases attributed of heterotaxy were reassigned to different subgroups within this disorder or were given a different diagnosis completely after fetal MRI.

In eight of these 12 diagnoses that changed after fetal MRI, doctors were able to confirm these findings postnatally. Other cases were either lost to follow-up, pregnancy termination, or fetal demise.

The research team led by Dr. Donofrio published these results in the August 2016 issue of Prenatal Diagnosis.

Overall, she says the findings demonstrated the benefits of using fetal MRI as an adjunct to obstetrical ultrasound and fetal echocardiography. MRI offers advantages over ultrasound, she explains, including better spatial resolution, a wider field of view, and a way to see through or around maternal body fat, overlying fetal bone, or a fetus whose position is not optimal.

“Determining the etiology of cardiac malposition remains a challenging diagnosis, and the value of accurate prenatal diagnosis has been long recognized,” Donofrio and colleagues write in the study. “Ultimately, fetal MRI can assist with identifying the etiology of cardiac malposition for informative prenatal counseling and multidisciplinary planning.”

Elena Grant

Interventional cardiac magnetic resonance team welcomes new specialist

elena-grant-photo

The Interventional Cardiac Magnetic Resonance (ICMR) Program at Children’s National is actively developing newer and safer ways to perform cardiac procedures on young patients, with some of the world’s leading experts in cardiac catheterization and imaging. Elena Grant, M.D., a former pediatric cardiology fellow at Children’s National, is the newest member to join the team that pioneered real-time MRI-guided radiation-free cardiac catheterization for children.

In addition to clinical work as a Children’s National Interventional Cardiologist, Dr. Grant will perform preclinical research at the National Institutes of Health to develop new procedures, techniques, and devices that can be translated to clinical practice to treat children and adults with congenital heart disease.

Dr. Grant specializes in interventional cardiology. She received her medical degree from the University of Dundee Medical School in Dundee, Scotland, followed by Foundation Training in Edinburgh, Scotland. She completed her pediatric residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, her Pediatric Cardiology fellowship at Children’s National, and she recently finished an advanced fellowship in interventional pediatric cardiology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University.

Advances in interventional cardiovascular MRI

Children’s National is at the forefront of this exciting new field and is currently the only institution in the United States to perform radiation-free MRI-guided cardiac catheterization procedures in children.

ICMR is a partnership with the National Institutes of Health that brings together researchers, clinicians, engineers, and physicists to provide radiation-free, less invasive, and more precise diagnostics and treatment options for pediatric patients and adults with congenital heart disease.

The ICMR approach to heart catheterization uses real-time MRI, instead of X-ray, in pediatric research subjects undergoing medically necessary heart catheterization. This research study is intended as a step toward routine MRI-guided catheterization in children, which attempts to avoid the hazards of ionizing radiation (X-ray).

In 2015, after working with NIH to explore how interventional cardiovascular MRI could be integrated into pediatric practices, the ICMR team, including Dr. Grant, Russell Cross, M.D., Joshua Kanter, M.D., and Laura Olivieri, M.D., performed the first  radiation-free MRI-guided right heart catheterization on a 14-year-old girl at Children’s National. Since then, nearly 50 such procedures have been successfully completed, and the team is working to broaden the age range and cardiac disease complexity of patients who can undergo the procedure.

About 1 percent of newborns are born with a heart condition, and the team at Children’s performs more than 450 X-ray guided cardiac catheterizations and over 500 cardiac MRI scans per year.