Mercy opens $10 million heart center

story and photo by Ryan Saylor
rsaylor@thecitywire.com

Patients in need of cardiovascular treatment at Mercy Hospital are now able to receive advanced treatment in one place with the opening of Mercy's $10 million Heart and Vascular Center.

According to Mercy president Ryan Gehrig, the new center was designed to benefit patients first and foremost. The facility is part of the $192 million community master plan  for the Fort Smith area that St. Louis-based Mercy announced in August 2011.

"The concept that we're unveiling is about pooling all of the services together in a central location," he said. "It's really about being patient-centric."

Gehrig said the new facility is housed within the hospital, but he said instead of just being an office, it's more like a "heart hospital within the hospital."

The new 16,000-square-foot facility has been outfitted with the latest technology in its catheterization laboratories, according to Jennifer Thomas, Mercy's vice president of insularly services.

According to Mercy spokesperson Laura Keep, the new Heart and Vascular Center includes:
 • Tour cardiac catheterization labs including three with all new equipment for sophisticated, life-saving interventions;
• A cardiac imaging suite with a nuclear medicine camera dedicated to cardiac care, two stress rooms with treadmills and two echocardiology rooms;
• Vascular lab with three exam rooms for non-invasive outpatient diagnosis;
• Preparation/recovery unit for patients pre- and post-procedure needs; and,
• Physician offices for Mercy Clinic cardiologists and cardiovascular surgeons.

Thomas said while patients may not notice an immediate difference in equipment, doctors and nurses would. Something as little as new imaging machines could make the difference in a diagnosis, Thomas said.

"We (now) have direct imaging, so we don't have the image degradation that we used to get. It's clearer, crisper. It's better quality for the physicians to see the intricacies of what they're doing," she said.

The new direct imaging equipment can display up to 250 shades of gray, while the previous equipment could only display 24 shades, Thomas explained.

She said the new imaging machines also reduce exposure to radiation for staff and patients, making procedures safer.

The new center has also led to additional hires for the hospital, according to Gehrig.

"We have five new physicians that are new to Fort Smith — two cardiovascular thoracic surgeons, the third is an interventional cardiologist and we have two more cardiologists joining us this summer," Gehrig said. "By August of this year, we'll have the area's largest, most comprehensive cardiology group."

Gehrig said residents of the Fort Smith region have been in need of additional local cardiologists for a long time.

"That's been a real issue for people in Fort Smith, they can't get in to see a cardiologist," he said. "In order to recruit and get the best, we felt it was important to improve and get the best technology to do so."

Another new addition to the facility will be an electrophysicist, according to Thomas. She said the heart rhythm specialist will visit the facility frequently.

"He will be coming down to our community at least monthly to perform clinics to our patients," Thomas said.

Gehrig said having doctors either coming to Fort Smith or basing themselves permanently in Fort Smith will be a benefit to patients, who already commute elsewhere for care.

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"One statistic that we've seen is that 62% of cardiac diagnosis were being treated outside of Fort Smith," he said. "Our goal is not to just serve Fort Smith better, but the whole region better. We want to go out into the region and provide better care without leaving their community. And it takes more physician manpower to achieve that."

As for older equipment that will be no longer be in use at the new facility, Keep said the hospital will be donating it to Arkansas Tech University-Ozark to be used in the school's new associates degree program in cardiovascular technology.

"They're the only program in the state," she said, adding that Mercy was pleased to partner with ATU-Ozark as the program continues to grow.

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