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A whole new world of heart care

Heart disease is everywhere. More than 50 percent of Americans either experience a major vascular event or die from one. Yet there’s reason to hope. New technologies are allowing doctors to fix life-threatening heart issues through precise procedures instead of open-heart surgery. Individuals who would have had to endure a risky and invasive operation with a long recovery can now go home in a day or two. Patients who didn’t qualify for surgery now have a solution.

As Vancouver Clinic’s Cardiology Department chair, I’m lucky to practice quite literally in the heart of this renaissance. Our department has always believed that it’s possible to provide world-class medicine to this community. In fact, our visionary doctors helped bring echocardiography, cardiac catheterization, and open-heart surgery to Vancouver. Now we’re leading the way with life-saving procedures. Here are four key therapies we use:

WATCHMAN™: Atrial fibrillation (AF) is a common heart condition wherein the upper chambers of the heart beat quickly and chaotically. Traditionally, doctors treated AF with blood thinners and anticoagulants to prevent strokes. Now, for many patients, the WATCHMAN™ is a better solution. This permanent filter is inserted into the heart through a vein in the leg and prevents clots from entering the bloodstream, allowing patients to get off warfarin.

TAVR: Cardiologists use transcatheter aortic valve replacement (TAVR) to fix aortic stenosis, a common condition in which the heart’s aortic valve narrows. Treating aortic stenosis typically required open-heart surgery. However, we now know that TAVR is safer and equally effective. During the procedure, a doctor guides a new expandable valve into the heart, restoring proper blood flow. The FDA approved TAVR for patients of all risk levels last summer. It’s incredibly exciting because the procedure is so well tolerated and the recovery quick.

MitraClip™: Mitral regurgitation occurs when the “leaflets” that keep blood from leaking backward into the heart stop working. Patients with a severe case are often diagnosed with heart failure. Now a tiny piece of technology can fix the problem. By inserting the MitraClip up through a vein in the leg and placing it in the heart, a doctor can tether the dysfunctional leaflets together and resolve the issue. While the procedure is currently available to a limited number of patients, the FDA could broaden its approval as more studies are published.

PFO closure device: Another area in which technology is making an impact is patent foramen ovale (PFO) treatment. A PFO is a hole between the top two chambers of the heart. While usually harmless, in some people a PFO may allow a blood clot to travel into the brain, causing a stroke. Doctors previously used medications to manage the condition. However, recent research shows that plugging the hole with an implant is more effective.

These devices are exciting because they’re changing the health outlook for patients today. Yet I believe that we’re just at the very beginning of discovering how technology can make cardiac care safer and more effective. Problems that might seem unsolvable now could have solutions five or 10 years down the road. Being able to offer patients innovative treatments and knowing that more are coming makes it an exciting time to be a cardiologist.

Dr. Ben John specializes in electrophysiology and is chair of Vancouver Clinic’s Cardiology Department. He is a Vancouver native and loves serving the people of this community.