Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition characterized by an irregular rhythm of the heart or arrhythmia. The said condition can lead to life-threatening health complications, such as heart failure and stroke. Unfortunately, there is no specific diagnostic tool that can detect AF. But researchers from Turku University Hospital developed an application for smartphones capable of detecting AF.
Mobile App Can Detect Events of Atrial Fibrillation
In a normal heart rhythm, the heart contracts and relaxes when pumping blood to the body. But in an event of AF, the atria, uppers chambers of the heart, beat irregularly instead of effectively pumping the blood into the ventricles. The irregularity can cause a pool of blood to form a clot, which can lead to a stroke if the clot breaks off and reaches the brain. According to the American Heart Association, up to 20 percent of people who suffered brain strokes have an incident of heart arrhythmia.
AF alone increases the risk of heart-related deaths by two times and risk of stroke by fivefold. Moreover, most patients are unaware of their condition. This is because the diagnosis of AF can be tricky and doctors particularly rely on family and medical histories. Typical cases of AF do not show any clinical signs and may not even show any symptoms on a physical exam or electrocardiogram test.
A joint research from the University of Turku and the Heart Center of the Turku University Hospital led to the development of a mobile application that has a very high accuracy rate in detecting AF. In the research, the team studied 300 patients with heart problems. And half of the patients had atrial fibrillation.
They explored new designs to find affordable solutions for detecting heart problems. The researchers bumped into smartphones, specifically the accelerometers installed in the devices. An accelerometer is a device that measures the acceleration of moving objects, such as automobiles and ships. It can also measure acceleration by collecting data from vibration produced by an object or structure.
The research team studied small accelerometers and analyzed their reliability in detecting very small movements. Analysis revealed that small accelerometers can detect micromovements in the chest area.
“At first, I was rather anxious about how well the algorithm will do in the blind study, especially because I felt that the patient group was particularly challenging. You could say that I was surprised myself how well it worked in the end,” said Tero Koivisto, the project manager from the Department of Future Technologies at the University of Turku.
They tested a mobile application that uses small accelerometers and an algorithm to detect AF on 300 patients. The test showed that the app has a 96-percent accuracy rate in detecting the condition. The technology also recognized nearly all cases of AF with a very low chance of false positive.
“The results are also significant in that the group included different kinds of patients, some of whom had heart failure, coronary disease, and ventricular extrasystole at the same time,” Koivisto added.
Implication of the Research among Doctors and Patients
According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, cardiologists and electrophysiologists are doctors that specialize in diagnosing heart diseases. These specialists rely on clinical signs, medical background, family histories, and health habits in determining atrial fibrillation. They also use tests, such as a cardiac exam to listen to the heart rate and heart rhythm, to check for any signs of AF. The most useful test to detect AF is the electrocardiogram. But it requires an actual AF to occur to provide conclusive results.
The joint research can help both patients and doctors in two possible ways:
1. Accelerometers exist in smartphones and most people have smartphones. With the specialized app installed on their smartphones, users can actually check their own heart rhythm using their devices, without having to wait for a doctor to check them out.
2. Because an EKG test can fail in detecting AF, doctors can use the app instead as an initial tool to detect signs of AF. It saves time and effort on their part in diagnosing patients. If the app suggests abnormalities in the patient’s heart rhythm, the doctor may order an EKG test to confirm the diagnosis.
“If everyone can measure with an ordinary smartphone whether they have atrial fibrillation, we have the possibility to direct patients straight to the doctor and further testing without any delay. Therefore, the potential for economic savings is significant,” explained Juhani Airaksinen, chief physician and cardiology professor at Turku University Hospital.
The research team is currently making efforts to make the technology available for the international market. They already applied for patent protection of the new methods used and are simply waiting for the approval.
Treatment of atrial fibrillation focuses on reducing the symptoms to prevent health complications. Doctors usually prescribe medications to correct the abnormal heart rhythm and advise patients to make certain lifestyle changes.
[메디컬리포트=Ralph Chen 기자]