Royal Papworth Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is leading a study into the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to diagnose heart valve disease.

Royal Papworth is working with the University of Cambridge on the research, which hopes to develop a screening tool powered by AI to help diagnose the disease before symptoms are first displayed.

The research will involve thousands of patients having four heart recordings that are collected via a Bluetooth stethoscope, in addition to the conventional route of an echocardiogram. Recordings will be uploaded to a machine-learning programme, so that the University of Cambridge can build an audio database of the noises associated with heart valve diseases.

Ultimately, the research aims to create an artificially intelligent stethoscope that can analyse heart murmurs to provide either a diagnosis or determine if further investigation is needed.

Andrew McDonald, research associate at the University of Cambridge’s engineering department, said: “We are excited by the potential impact this study can have, using the AI machine learning of the sound recordings and an app to provide an instant diagnosis of whether or not someone has, or is likely to have, valve disease.

“This can help to diagnose heart disease that might otherwise have gone undetected or been picked up too late, hopefully reducing the number of patients who then develop end-stage heart failure, improving outcomes and reducing the demand on GPs and the health service.”

Once developed, the AI-powered tool could be used within the community by healthcare professionals as part of a screening programme for at-risk patients.

This will extend the pool of healthcare professionals who are able to diagnose heart valve disease, which will in turn decrease the demand on GPs. In addition it will help reduce the burden of managing patients who are in late-stage heart failure by supporting earlier diagnoses.

Despite the Covid pandemic and the redeployment of some research staff, the team at Royal Papworth have been able to recruit 273 of their own patients to join the almost 1,200 patients who have so far signed up for the study across five NHS hospital sites.

The use of AI tools is rapidly changing the way health care is delivered. At the Royal Free Hospital, it’s being used to detect heart disease in seconds, while nine NHS trusts have recently signed up for the first UK clinical trial of an AI device which could transform bowel cancer care.