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GMC gets open heart program
State approves Certificate of Need application

LAWRENCEVILLE - It's go time for Gwinnett Medical Center.

GMC announced Thursday that the state approved its application to begin an open heart surgery program at the facility's Lawrenceville campus.

Approval of the bid effectively erases Gwinnett's status as the largest county in the nation without such a service.

The program will be operational sometime in 2010, officials said.

"This is not only a point of pride for our organization - it should serve as a point of pride for Gwinnett," GMC President and Chief Executive Officer Phil Wolfe said in a statement. "Our community rallied around this cause with over 1,000 letters of support and resolutions from leaders throughout the county."

The Georgia Department of Community Health made the decision based on three critical benchmarks: adverse impact, community need and service alternatives.

Here are some excerpts from the GDCH approval letter:

n "Several hundred letters of support were submitted ... from all segments of the community ... the overriding theme of the letters from doctors was concern and angst over the limited care available to patients presenting at GMC, due to the absence of an open heart surgery program. Patient outcomes could have been much better if they did not have to be transferred or redirected to existing open heart surgery providers."

n "The proposed project will improve the quality, access and overall efficiency of adult open heart surgery services available within the local health care delivery system."

n "As Gwinnett County's traffic congestion continues to increase, the creation of an open heart surgery program at the center of the county significantly improves the ability of the residents of Gwinnett County to access timely care, thereby reducing heart damage and the likelihood of poor health outcomes."

The state's approval gives GMC the green light to join Atlanta-based Saint Joseph's Health System to create Gwinnett Cardiovascular Services, an arrangement created to bring advanced cardiac services to the county.

Gwinnett Cardiovascular Services will be jointly owned and managed by GMC and Saint Joseph's Health System. Under the agreement, Saint Joseph's will provide consultative services, including training and clinical advisory support to GMC's cardiovascular center, which will include open heart surgery services.

GMC's mandate to perform open heart surgery expands its treatment options considerably, according to GMC cardiologist Dr. Manfred Sandler.

Under the program, doctors will be able to interrupt a heart attack by catheterizing patients via the groin and placing stents in heart blood vessels with acute blockages, he said. GMC was unable to intervene in this manner on patients with in-progress heart attacks without an open heart surgery component - it essentially serves as a failsafe - and had to transfer patients to Saint Joseph's to receive further treatment.

"It has major life-saving benefits," said Sandler, who also serves as chairman of the GMC Foundation.

If catheterization and stenting doesn't work - between 300 to 400 patients annually in Gwinnett are not amenable to stents - then open heart surgery would be the next step, Sandler said.

Open heart surgery is a procedure in which a heart-lung machine is used to support the patient's circulation while a surgeon opens the chest and makes changes to the heart or the arteries on its surface, he said. It is generally not performed under emergency circumstances - patients generally elect to have the procedure - and less than 5 percent die as a result.

Gwinnett emergency medical services officials applauded the news.

"This will no doubt have a tremendous positive impact on the community and its health needs," Gwinnett Fire and Emergency Services spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said.

To accommodate the program, the hospital will build two operating rooms - known as the "West Expansion" - on the back end of the facility facing Lawrenceville-Suwanee Road, according to GMC spokeswoman Andrea Wehrmann The design process will begin in August and construction is anticipated to begin in July 2009, with an expected open date within two years of the start of construction.

Patient care facilities related to the open heart program will be housed at the hospital's eight-story tower, which is scheduled to be completed in 2009.

"It's a great day for health care in Gwinnett County," Sandler said in a phone interview Thursday. "This will take a great hospital system that delivers excellent clinical care - as judged nationally - to an excellent, well-rounded tertiary care facility."

GMC launched its pursuit of an open heart program in October 2007 and filed a Certificate of Need application to the GDCH in January. In April, as the state reviewed GMC's application, the hospital announced its partnership with Saint Joseph's

"Saint Joseph's recognizes that the Gwinnett community is something special," Saint Joseph's Health System president and CEO Kirk Wilson said in a statement. "We are excited about the opportunity to launch a best-in-class program with GMC, and pleased that we can continue to build upon our legacy of expertise in cardiac care."

SideBar: What it means

What the state approved: GMC's

Certificate of Need for an open heart surgery program at its Lawrenceville campus

The process: GMC began its bid for an open heart surgery program in October 2007 and filed the Certificate of Need in January. In April, the hospital announced a partnership with Saint Joseph's in Atlanta, which will

provide training and support to GMC's open heart surgery program

What's next: The hospital expects the program to be underway sometime in 2010. In the meantime, the hospital plans to build two operating rooms and will hire and train additional staff.