Artificial Intelligence for Cardiac Patients: An Interview with Professor Luca Weltert, UniCamillus Lecturer

On Wednesday 15 November, the Senate of the Republic hosted the conference “Digital Health 2023: Present and Future Cardiology“, promoted by Senator Antonio Guidi, in collaboration with ANIC (Associazione Nazionale Innovazione Cardiovascolare) and organised by DreamCom.

The event explored how telemedicine, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technological innovations are revolutionising healthcare services, particularly in the management of heart disease.

One of the presentations was given by Professor Luca Weltert, a cardiac surgeon and lecturer in Medical Statistics at UniCamillus. His presentation was titled “Digital Academy: what are the benefits?”

We interviewed Professor Weltert about the current dynamics in digital health, especially in the field of Cardiology.

What are the current digital health technologies for cardiac patients? And what are the benefits compared to the past?

First of all, it is important to emphasise that the term “digital health” is a container that, since we’re talking of a young discipline, is not yet well defined. Certainly, when we talk about digital health, we refer primarily to telemedicine, AI and centralised cloud data systems.

Digital health is proving very useful in bringing greater recognition to an area of healthcare still lacking a clear identity, a “follow-up“, which in medicine refers to monitoring a patient’s progress in maintaining a prescribed therapy after diagnosis or surgery. When a patient undergoes therapy in hospital, there is an outcome, and outside the hospital, a primary care physician follows up on the results. However, there is usually no direct communication between GPs and hospital doctors, so the latter are not automatically aware of the outcome of these treatments.

In North America, outpatient clinics have the same status as acute care hospitals, and the sequence of these visits is constant.

AI comes into play when it acts as an intermediary between hospital doctors and patients, asking them directly over the phone about any symptoms or readmissions. In this way, continuity of care is provided to those who provided the original service, allowing them to assess it and share it with colleagues in the community.

Can you give us a practical example of such technological devices?

I can tell you about an app that I helped to develop that collects follow-up data from cardiac patients, as I mentioned earlier. This app is called Med58 and I worked on the development of this artificial intelligence software. UniCamillus is starting to use it in a personalised free incarnation called “UniCamillus Digital Health”, open to students who can collect information for their dissertations in a centralised cloud system that automatically generates statistics.

Med58 is a piece of software that some Roman hospitals have started to use, a system that fills the current gap in data collection for patient follow-up, creating a link between acute care hospitals and the community.

In addition to data collection apps, how can cardiology take advantage of digital health?

Actually, the first industry that is related to digital health is Radiology. Cardiology relies heavily on Radiology. For example, the traditional technique of coronary angiography is complemented by CardioTac to see “inside” the coronary arteries.

Cardiology, in this “radiological sense”, is indirectly linked to AI, which is used for diagnostic criteria.

However, it is not used to assign treatments to patients: the formalisation of a diagnosis remains a human act. The machine suggests some things, but it does not have all the possible information to formulate a treatment, and it lacks purely human intuitive elements. The machine can assist the human brain, increase the speed and precision of operations, but it cannot replace it. It certainly doesn’t get tired, it is faster and more precise, without the lapses in attention that a human being can have: we must exploit its advantages without overlooking its disadvantages. In medicine, the relationship with this machine must be one of collaboration, not replacement.

You mentioned North America. Is there any resistance in Italy to the use of AI in medicine?

A preliminary remark is necessary: there is extreme resistance or exaggerated enthusiasm because AI is presented by the media as an omnipresent and everyday reality that is now part of our society. In reality, this is not the case.

However, there are two different attitudes in medicine: doctors in the community tend to be cautious about artificial intelligence, while hospital doctors would like to adopt it more.

At the moment, it is certainly being used more in research centres. On the other hand, in the management of large hospital practices, the structural limitations of technological adaptation prevent evolution in this direction.

In this respect, UniCamillus is a pioneering university: as I mentioned earlier, it has equipped itself with an application that provides students with a real-time, anonymised, and privacy-respecting university database. This allows students to compile their dissertations optimally and it is an investment in the future of education, making it relevant today by providing the tools of tomorrow.