VCU raises heart health awareness through February

Sarah King
News Editor

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

Photo by Julie Tripp

At VCU’s Pauley Heart Center, the month of February signifies more than mentally preparing for the check-out lines at Kroger around Valentine’s Day.

VCU is fully embracing The American Heart Association’s “Heart month” initiative, which intends to educate communities about heart disease and spread awareness of the 70 million Americans who live with it.

“There’s a lot of great stuff that goes on here,” said Zachary Gertz, a doctor at the Pauley Heart Center who specializes in structural heart disease. “We do a lot of cutting-edge stuff including important new trials for devices, and we’ve done a lot of procedures without even having to put the patient to sleep.”

Gertz was scheduled to present a lecture on Feb. 17 with a colleague, doctor Daniel Tang, as part VCU’s free seminar series on heart health throughout the month of February.

This Thursday, the last installment of the series, “New Treatment for Atrial Fibrillation,” will feature Pauley Center doctors Kenneth Ellenbogen and Vigneshwar Kasirajan. The two will discuss the medical center being one of the few hospitals in the country to utilize a new procedure called hybrid ablation.

“VCU is definitely at the forefront of technological advancements in ways that are less invasive to get people feeling better as quickly as possible,” Gertz said.

Another such initiative that Gertz is personally involved with are trials currently underway for the “Parachute procedure” that invokes the implant of an umbrella shaped device for patients who have difficulty breathing after suffering a heart attack.

Gertz said the VCU Medical Center is one of the top 10 institutions in the nation for enrolling participants for the trial procedure.

Gertz also emphasized that although the rate of heart disease is low in young adults, he encourages students to think critically about their current habits.

“Following a heart-healthy diet and exercising will help in the future,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Pauley Center was also selected to receive part of a $10 million scholarship to further research on patient care following heart operations.

The American College of Cardiology selected the VCU Medical Center as one of 35 national institutions to participate in the ACC Patient Navigator Program which aims to educate and properly treat patients following their release from the hospital.

The ACC Patient Navigator Program is sponsored by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

“One of the things we found is that patients who have lower socioeconomic status are more at-risk for readmission because they don’t have the same resources that other patient populations have access to,” said Dale Harvey, the Director of Performance Improvement at the VCU Medical Center.

This is not the first program initiated by the Medical Center to reduce readmission rates.

“We have a number of activities focused on reducing hospital readmissions that actually predate this program,” said chief medical officer for clinical activities Ron Clark. “So for years this hospital has paid, from our own bottom line, to support patients leaving the hospital who don’t have access to medications, medical equipment, even patients who need to go to nursing homes.”

The federal government has recently begun to fine hospitals once they reach a certain rate of readmission. Virginia ranks high nationally in the average rate of the fines issued. In fiscal year 2015 the Medical College of Virginia faced their highest rate yet with a 0.69 percent readmission penalty.

The VCU Medical Center is one of many Safenet hospitals, which provide care to uninsured and impoverished patients. Thus, the healthcare facilities face higher levels of readmission than hospitals of a similar scale causing unequal penalty distribution.

“The model is imperfect,” Clark said, “they do need to make some adjustments moving forward in order to account for important variables that influence the numbers.”

In 2013, approximately 2 million patients across the U.S. were readmitted within a month of their release from a hospital, ultimately costing Medicare $26 billion.

An estimated $17 billion of that is a result of readmissions that were potentially avoidable if the patient had been administered proper treatment. Even with the recently enacted government fines, the losses medical centers face from high readmission rates exceed the returns.

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