Health in 3D: New App Helps Parents Visualize Their Child's Heart Disorder

February 15, 2023
Beth Hart

Written by Beth Hart

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A new digital learning app developed by students at Carle Illinois College of Medicine leverages 3D images to help parents visualize their child’s congenital heart condition, so they’re better equipped to make important treatment decisions. It’s a visual approach to flatten the learning curve for parents of children born with heart defects.

<em>A prototype of the pediatric cardiac education app, designed to teach parents about their child's congenital heart defect. Photo by Kaden Rawson.</em>
A prototype of the pediatric cardiac education app, designed to teach parents about their child's congenital heart defect. Photo by Kaden Rawson.

Congenital heart defects (CHDs) are structural abnormalities in the heart and are the most common type of birth defect in the US, affecting nearly 40,000 births each year. One in every four congenital heart defects is a critical health need, requiring parental consent for intervention, such as surgery to repair the problem. Preparing parents to make those decisions often falls on a cardiologist or a patient educator, and current research indicates that the information doesn’t always stay with parents over time.

“The concept of having a hole between the chambers of the heart or an abnormality in cardiac anatomy can be hard for parents to grasp and remember, especially when they’re learning from paper diagrams,” Carle Illinois College of Medicine student Lindsey Ades said. “We wanted to create something that parents can interact with, painting a realistic and easily understandable picture of their child’s specific problem.”

<em>Lindsey Ades</em>
Lindsey Ades

Ades and fellow physician innovator Prachi Keni worked with Illinois bioengineering students to design the new app using a 3D block diagram of the heart and realistic 3D images of the heart to demonstrate how common defects affect the heart's function. The initial development of the app includes 3D images of an atrial septal defect (ASD), a ventricular septal defect (VSD), and a patent ductus arteriosus (PDA). The images will be customizable to represent defects of different sizes. Images of other defects could be incorporated in future versions.

It’s common for children to be born with multiple cardiac defects, so the app's settings can be adjusted to reflect these defects in combination. Future versions will include anatomical labels, defect descriptions, and arrows to demonstrate how the various defects affect blood flow.

<em>Prachi Keni</em>
Prachi Keni

Keni says while the primary goal is more effective parental education, the app may also save time. “Typically, a cardiologist spends time each visit teaching parents about their child’s CHD. We believe this app will allow parents to review and refer back to information about their child’s specific diagnosis, ultimately decreasing the frequency of repetitive in-office explanations by the specialist.”

The app is designed to be compatible with most mobile devices, including smart phones and tablets.

The cardiac education app is one of the Capstone Innovations proposed by the future physician innovators in Carle Illinois’ Class of 2023. In the final phase of Carle Illinois’ engineering-based, innovation-oriented curriculum, fourth-year students research a problem identified during their clinical rotations, propose a solution, and then work with a cross-disciplinary team, including engineering students from The Grainger College of Engineering, to develop a new prototype or process that will potentially change the practice of medicine and improve patient outcomes. M.B.A. candidates Zach Erbe and Chris Webb are assisting with the business plan for this project. Faculty advisors include Professors Holly Golecki, Joe Bradley, Brad Sutton, and Javed Zaidi.  Bioengineering students Kevin Beck, Neha Hebbar, Yunji Nam, Zach Cacini, and Alhindi Abdalmahmoud worked to develop a prototype. The Class of 2023 will present their final project designs in May, just prior to graduation.

Capstone Innovations are supported by The Henry Dale and Betty Smith Family.

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This story was published February 15, 2023.