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Heart Disease Health Center

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Angioplasty Safe Sans Surgical Backup

With Proper Safeguards, Angioplasty Centers Are Safe Even Without Heart Surgery Team, Study Shows
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

March 31, 2008 (Chicago) -- Angioplasty procedures to open clogged heart arteries can be performed safely and successfully at medical centers that don't have a heart surgery team on site in case of an emergency, a large study suggests.

But the findings should not be interpreted as an endorsement of that practice, says researcher Michael A. Kutcher, MD, director of interventional cardiology at Wake Forest University Health Sciences Center in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"Given a choice, I would still suggest going to a hospital with surgical backup," he tells WebMD. "But it does offer some reassurance that angioplasty can be safe [at centers without backup] -- if they have a very structured process and a strong commitment to quality."

Kutcher and colleagues analyzed data on 9,029 patients who had angioplasty at 61 centers without heart surgery backup and 299,132 patients at 404 centers that had a heart surgery team on site. It's the largest study to look at the issue.

The findings were presented at a meeting sponsored by the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions (SCAI), which was held in conjunction with the American College of Cardiology (ACC) summit.

Angioplasty Guidelines

Angioplasty is a common treatment for coronary artery disease, in which plaque builds up in the heart's arteries, making it harder for blood to get through and depriving the heart muscle of oxygen. Untreated, it can lead to heart attacks and chronic chest pain that worsens when you exercise.

During angioplasty, a balloon at the end of a long tube is threaded through an artery in the groin. An interventional cardiologist carefully guides the probe up through the patient's leg and into the arteries of the heart, where the balloon is inflated to open the vessel. An expandable wire mesh tube called a stent is often inserted to keep the vessel open.

If you're in the throes of a , guidelines call for getting treatment at the closest medical center -- and the new study doesn't change that.

But most angioplasties are scheduled, when the procedure is less urgent. In these cases, it's recommended that heart surgeons be available to perform bypass surgery in the rare -- but potentially fatal -- chance that an artery is punctured.

Some small hospitals argue that the guidelines are outdated, pointing out that emergency bypass surgery is needed in only about 0.3% of angioplasty patients. They say they need to include elective procedures in their mix in order to survive economically and to keep staff skills high.

Kutcher says that despite a lack of studies showing it is safe, more and more U.S. hospitals are performing angioplasty without surgical backup.

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