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St. Vincent cardiologist implants first wireless heart sensors in Northwest

Dr. Jacob AbrahamA cardiologist at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center last month implanted tiny sensors into the blood vessels of three heart patients, sensors that may help them avoid a sudden trip to the emergency room — or worse.

Dr. Jacob Abraham’s patients are the first in the Pacific Northwest to receive the CardioMEMS HF System devices. As he also helps test the next generation of this technology, he plans to continue implanting the federally approved version of the sensor in at least a dozen more patients suffering from chronic heart failure. Included in that total are another three patients scheduled for the procedure next week, he said.

“The results of the (clinical) trial were quite impressive,” Abraham said of the study that resulted in approval of the devices made by St. Jude Medical. “There was a significant reduction in those who needed hospitalization.”

The narrow sensors, about the length of a dime with wires looping out of each end to provide stability, are implanted into a large blood vessel in the lung. Once placed, they can remotely detect subtle increases in blood pressure that result from the excessive buildup of fluid in the body, such as the lungs or legs.

Left unchecked and typically unnoticed by patients, fluid buildup can have catastrophic effects for patients with failing hearts, said Abraham, who practices at the Providence St. Vincent Heart Center and serves as medical director of Providence's Center for Advanced Heart Disease. But caught early on, excessive fluids can be reduced with shifts in medication or, to a lesser degree, dietary changes such as cutting salt intake.

The CardioMEMS allow heart doctors to treat their patients in much the same way doctors have long tracked the health of diabetics, who typically take charge of monitoring their own blood glucose levels and respond accordingly.

“We’re finally catching up to that model,” said Abraham, 40, who lives in the Bethany area.

For patients ages 65 and older, heart failure is a leading cause of hospitalization, Abraham said.

Reducing hospitalizations and even deaths is obviously good for the patients, but it’s also good business. In an effort to tie reimbursements to successful medical care, the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) penalizes hospitals for re-admissions.

“It’s a substantial business cost for the health system,” he said.

The CardioMEMS device, which lasts for the life of the patient, is wirelessly read by an antenna embedded into a pillow given to the patient. The antenna sends data to the patient’s cardiologist, who gets an email or text when the sensor detects an unsafe pressure increase.

The devices are threaded into a vein using a catheter and transported up through the body to a blood vessel in the left lung.

Abraham was not involved in the original trials for the CardioMEMS but is taking part in testing St. Jude’s next generation of the device, an even smaller unit that is being implanted in the heart’s left atrium. Implanting in that location is more complex, but has the potential to provide better data, he said.

Abraham works with five of the approximately 500 patients taking part in the new clinical trial.

“This is sort of bringing heart failure (treatment) into the 21st century,” he said.

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