A new technique to improve diagnoses of coronary heart disease could mean significant developments in the management of people with heart disease, the most common cause of death in Australia and a major cause of disability, according to Melbourne cardiologist and MonashHeart, Monash University researcher Dr Arthur Nasis.

“Coronary artery disease is what we’re looking at and it’s basically the narrowing of arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle and that’s what causes chest pain and that’s what the leading cause of death in Australia is,” Dr Nasis told Neos Kosmos.

Dr Nasis’ research is designed to look at a new diagnostic technique to work out why people experience chest pain. The technique is a special type of CT scan of the heart muscle and arteries. “The aim is to see whether this is a more accurate and safe way than the current tests we have in evaluating patients with chest pain,” Dr Nasis said.

“Really, there’s a sophisticated series of projects we’re working on to try and work that out when patients come in with chest pain to see if they do in fact have this condition.” When a patient presents to hospital with chest pains the first thing that is determined is whether or not they are having a heart attack, Dr Nasis said. “With patients who aren’t having a heart attack there’s more time, they usually get to investigate their chest pain through some kind of stress test, but we don’t think these are as accurate as what we find in a CT scan.”

Currently the only way arteries can be visualised is with an invasive test called a Coronary angiogram, which carries a small risk of serious complication. “With the new technology we’re hoping we could show similar results but avoid all those serious complications. The scan itself takes about half a second to perform, it’s very quick, very accurate and very safe,” Dr Nasis said.

With this new technology people who present to the emergency department could have this scan done immediately. “CTs can be done when a patient initially comes into the hospital with chest pain, whereas other tests can take weeks to arrange. CT takes a picture of the artery and, if it is completely normal or severely narrowed, we can tell,” Dr Nasis said. For Coronary artery disease there are five major risk factors, with men being most at risk, particularly those aged over 65. The risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, Diabetes, and a family history of heart disease.

“For people who have any of those risk factors, particularly if they get chest pain, it’s very important they present to hospital because they will be at higher risk of having coronary heart disease,” Dr Nasis said, adding “having said that, it can also happen to people with none of those risk factors”. This year, the Heart Foundation is combining its major awareness campaigns of Heart Week and Go Red for Women to promote awareness about women and heart disease. The combined campaign will run over May – June 2011.