Have you or anyone close to you ever developed sudden chest pains such that you thought it could be the onset of serious heart problems?
It can certainly be a frightening experience, most likely leading you to urgently present at your nearest A&E department. It's also actually quite common: in the UK, more than 5% of emergency department visits and up to 40% of emergency admissions are as a direct result of chest pain.
However, chest pain can be a difficult medical area: there are lots of different underlying problems that can cause it. Yes, it could be the sign of a serious heart condition - but it could just be the result of other issues such as severe stress and anxiety, or even simply indigestion.
As a result, it can take considerable time and effort for NHS teams to identify the real cause. Because it can be potentially so serious, they operate a 'rule in' diagnosis or triage process. This means that if one particular test shows a negative result for a serious heart problem, they still need to perform other tests. This requires a combination of looking at medical history, physical examination, ECG scanning and blood tests.
This combination can take up to 24 hours and still be inconclusive. The tests can be stressful and invasive for the patient - and can also cost the NHS up to £2,000 per patient. Sometimes that's not the end of it: patients may need to be referred to a specialist cardiac clinic for further tests.
However, the good news is that a new kind of medical technology has been developed that can help physicians quickly and accurately determine whether or not chest pain is being caused by a serious cardiac problem.
It's called magnetocardiography (MCG) - as opposed to the more widely used electrocardiography (ECG).
Magnetocardiography detects extremely small magnetic fields in a patient's heart, which produces a map indicating the difference between normal and abnormal cardiac behaviour. It generates much more accurate signals than an ECG scan, where a 'normal' result does not mean that heart damage is not taking place - merely that the damage is such that it can't be seen on the recording. This is why further tests may still be needed.
An MCG scan measures electromagnetic fluctuations and produces a trace, numerical data and a 2D visual magnetic field map of the heart to aid healthcare professionals in the triage of patients. Cells in the heart that lack oxygen or are dying distort the data points and parameters picked up by the scanner, so this can clearly be seen in the resulting trace and map.
The scan is a non-invasive (over clothes) procedure that can be performed at the bedside and takes only 3-5 minutes. One of the key points is that it is a 'rule out' procedure, that is to say it allows clinicians to accurately detect the absence of many types of cardiac conditions.
This means that some of those patients who don't have a serious cardiac condition (and statistics show that this is around 75% of patients who present at emergency departments) can be quickly diagnosed as clear - putting their mind at rest and allowing them to go home or get any minor treatment or advice that they need. Current tests like ECGs all work to rule conditions in and therefore it is more time-consuming to identify non-cardiac patients.
And it means that those patients who can't be ruled out can be quickly referred on to the right experts for further examination and treatment.
Initial clinical studies of the Vitalscan device that we have developed at Creavo Medical Technologies indicate that the 'rule out' of patients can be achieved with near 100% accuracy.
The benefits of MCG could be huge not only for patients but for the NHS itself - it is estimated that the NHS could save as much as £200m a year if a device like ours was to be rolled out across every A&E department.
But it doesn't stop with the heart. The core MCG technology has been proven to help rule out conditions in other organs as well. Clinical magnetometry has been used in other areas, most notably neurology and pre-term labour.
So, add a new term to your medical vocabulary! I hope that MCG scans will become much more common across healthcare, bringing benefits for patients and medical services alike.