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North Hills Monthly

UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute Offers Convenient, Top-Notch Care to Northern Communities

Mar 01, 2017 08:28AM ● By North Hills Monthly magazine

For many people, especially those facing chronic heart and vascular conditions, doctors’ visits become a way of life. Not only is it important for them to have their physicians nearby for the sake of convenience, but in the case of an emergency, having cardiologists, cardiac surgeons and vascular surgeons in local community hospitals can mean  the difference between life and death. Fortunately for those living in the North Hills and surrounding areas, they have access to physicians who are part of UPMC’s Heart and Vascular Institute (HVI) at both UPMC Passavant and UPMC St. Margaret.

“The Heart and Vascular Institute is unique because anything that the patient needs related to cardiovascular health is made available through a network of doctors from all over the Pittsburgh area,” explains Michael Curren Jr., MD, MS, clinical instructor of medicine and section chief, Division of Cardiology at UPMC St. Margaret. “While they’re seeing a provider very close to home, they are getting direct access to a world of cutting-edge expertise and technology in the medical field.”

At UPMC St. Margaret, for example, a patient may see his or her cardiologist for cardiac testing, regular visits and follow-up care, but if it is determined that the patient needs to see a specialist, that visit can be arranged in the cardiologist’s office or at the hospital.

“We have six cardiologists working at UPMC St. Margaret who are dedicated to the hospital and its patients,” says cardiologist Bradley Heppner, MD. “But we are also able to bring in specialists to see patients with advanced heart failure, for example, or to visit with pre-op patients before their procedures. This way, we can save them a trip to UPMC Presbyterian.

“Through HVI, we are able to offer the most advanced care, delivered locally,” he adds. “Our patients have access 

to all of the institute’s specialists as 

well as the latest technology available.” HVI patients at both hospitals also have access to clinical trials in all areas of heart and vascular care.

According to Dr. Curren, one of the reasons that the HVI works so well is because the lines of communication are always open among its large network of physicians. “We may not know each doctor personally, but we all communicate with each other about our patients. Not only do advanced cardiac and surgical specialists come to see patients at UPMC St. Margaret, but we know that they are just one phone call away. 

“Through the Electronic Health Record (EHR) system, we are able to readily access all of the care that patients have received through the HVI,” he adds. “I can review something that a patient had done three months ago at UPMC Passavant at the touch of a button—and if I have any questions, I can just call the doctor or ping them through the EHR.”

While the most obvious advantage of this is that patient records are right at a physician’s fingertips, Dr. Curren adds that it prevents redundant testing and saves costs to both the patient and hospital. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” he says. “I am able to pull up results in my office and even review them with my patients; it’s a fantastic system. It’s effortless.”

One Patient’s Story

Betsy (Bette) Schultz, 68, of Middlesex Township, got to experience the efficiency of the Heart and Vascular Institute firsthand when she recently underwent surgery for a mitral valve replacement. A patient of Dr. Bradley Heppner for the past 20 years, she was also taken care of by his brother, retired cardiologist Dr. Richard Heppner, for 15 years.

“About 10 ½ years ago, I had a mitral valve replacement; I elected to have a tissue valve used and was told it would need to be replaced in 10 to 12 years,” she explains. “This past summer, I began losing energy, and at one point, I ended up in the emergency room.

“Dr. Heppner referred me to  Dr. Machiraju  at UPMC Passavant for the surgery, and after doing some research, I decided that he was highly recommended and the right choice for my operation,” she adds.

“I hadn’t been in UPMC Passavant for any serious procedure since my children were born—the youngest is now 37 years old,” she laughs. “But my husband had been treated for an abdominal aortic aneurysm and had wonderful doctors and great care. I felt that this was where I wanted to be.”

Since having her surgery in November of 2016, Mrs. Schultz completed cardiac rehab at UPMC Cranberry and is now back in the care of Dr. Heppner and his staff.

“I have great confidence in the medical staff at UPMC St. Margaret as well as the staff at UPMC Passavant,” says Mrs. Schultz, who adds that she is now feeling fine. “During my six-day stay at UPMC Passavant, the medical staff treated me very professionally. The teamwork between the two hospitals was amazing.

“It was also really nice to be close to home because my family and friends live nearby, and it made it easier for them to give me their much-appreciated support and love,” she adds.

From General Care to Complex Procedures

Physicians at UPMC St. Margaret and UPMC Passavant deal with a number of conditions including hypertension, arrhythmias, coronary artery disease, peripheral vascular disease, congenital heart disease, valvular disease, acute heart attacks and more. Sub-specialty trained physicians at UPMC Passavant also perform cardiac surgeries, which is a major advantage when time is of the essence. 

“We treat all aspects of coronary artery disease, including acute heart attacks that require catheterization and stenting procedures, as well as perform coronary bypass surgery and valve surgery,” says Michael Fallert, MD, chairman of the Department of Cardiology and assistant director of clinical cardiology at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute. “In the case of an acute heart attack, the therapy is time-dependent—the quicker it is done, the better the outcome—so having these services closer to home is vital; people don’t have to drive far for life-saving therapy.

“What is surprising to me is that there are still a lot of people in the North Hills who do not realize that we perform bypass surgery here,” he adds. “We have a very established program led by the same cardiology group that works at the other UPMC system hospitals, giving us the capability to do complex, sophisticated cardiac procedures.”

At UPMC Passavant, heart surgery patients benefit from a multidisciplinary team approach that includes input from cardiologists, cardiac surgeons, critical care nurses and cardiac anesthesiologists, among others. 

“Everyone is involved from the get-go, from the evaluation before surgery to the follow-up after surgery,” explains Pyongsoo Yoon, MD, director of cardiac surgery at UPMC Passavant, who along with Dr. V.R. Machiraju, has performed more than 20,000 heart surgeries. 

“We rarely send our patients downtown; the majority of procedures—approximately 98 percent—are managed here,” he adds. “We have excellent outcomes, very low mortality rates and very low complication rates.”

This team approach is echoed further through the work of UPMC’s vascular surgeons, three of whom work at UPMC St. Margaret and three of whom work at UPMC Passavant.

“We have a very nice relationship with the doctors in cardiology and cardiac surgery; we work as one team,” says Georges Al-Khoury, MD, chief of vascular surgery at UPMC Passavant. “We see patients in the same office and we support each other. It’s a unique approach, even in the whole system.”

UPMC offers one of the leading training programs in the country for vascular surgery, with residents and fellows rotating with vascular surgeons at both northern campuses. 

“We have access to all new technology and research protocols, as well as new devices or stents for complex patients with peripheral arterial disease, thoracic and abdominal aortic disease,” says Dr. Al-Khoury. “We are also able to involve our patients in clinical trials covering every aspect of vascular surgery, including thoracic aortic aneurysms, abdominal aortic aneurysms, limb salvage and wound healing for PAD, varicose veins, venous disease and dialysis access.”

Dr. Al-Khoury adds that at UPMC Passavant, patients also have access to one of best hybrid suites in the UPMC system that includes a dedicated operating room for endovascular and open procedures. 

Comfort and Convenience

While the most important aspect of heart and vascular care is working with experienced and skilled physicians, it doesn’t hurt that the hospitals go out of their way to provide positive patient experiences.  

“Because general cardiology, electrophysiology, vascular surgery and cardiac surgery are all physically integrated within the same space, it enables patients to be treated in an interrelated, collaborative way by various branches of the HVI,” says Dr. Fallert. “So if a patient comes in to see one doctor, but then needs to see a specialist, we can easily set up those consultations, as well as initiate any testing that needs to be done.

“With the breadth of services we offer, we are very much an extension of what is available at HVI in Oakland,” he adds. “With the exception of organ transplants and a few niche procedures, there’s no reason for patients to go into the city, because all of the physicians here are part of the same group.”

Dr. Fallert adds that UPMC Passavant’s new pavilion offers top-of-the-line amenities to patients staying there, including spacious, comfortable private rooms and free parking. “It’s much different than what you’d expect from a typical hospital room,” he says. “And patients get to stay in their own neighborhood.”

This desire is echoed by Dr. Curren, who says that many of his patients say that they are intimidated by the idea of going to a larger hospital downtown where they don’t know the physicians that they’ll be seeing. At UPMC St. Margaret, patients are seen by the same physician every time, which gives them more confidence and peace of mind.

“I try to treat each patient as a family member, and I believe that that’s the general feeling at UPMC St. Margaret,” he says. “We take ownership of our patients’ health, and give them the best care we can deliver. It sounds clichéd, but it’s true. It’s how patients should be treated.”

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