State of the Heart: The East Carolina Heart Institute

Greenville, North Carolina, for all its charm, is not exactly a hot spot for world travelers. In fact, we are such a well-kept secret that few folks realize all we have to offer and drop by. So what should one make of the dozens of world-class surgeons who visit every year from all corners of the globe?

What is it they know?

They know what the rest of the world is soon going to realize: the extent to which East Carolina University, through its involvement with the new East Carolina Heart Institute, has positioned itself as a worldwide leader in the fight against the most prolific killer in the United States and Europe—cardiovascular disease.

The East Carolina Heart Institute is dedicated exclusively to cardiovascular care. It is the latest in a long line of partnerships between ECU and Pitt County Memorial Hospital that have benefited the people of eastern North Carolina and the larger medical community.

Now, the same pioneering spirit that saw the potential of robotic surgery for cardiac patients a decade ago, is being employed to fundamentally change the way cardiovascular disease is perceived and treated in eastern North Carolina.

The East Carolina Heart Institute's outpatient facility is located on ECU's Health Sciences campus.

For the first time, the care centers for the cardiovascular disease process—everything from routine exams to advanced surgery—can be found under one roof. For health care providers, it means easier and more efficient care delivery, and for patients, it means more precise and more convenient care.

“In the past, cardiology resided in the department of medicine, cardiovascular surgery in the department of surgery. But what we’ve done is we’ve aligned the incentives [and] care process into a new department of cardiovascular sciences,” said W. Randolph Chitwood Jr., MD, associate vice chancellor for health sciences at the Brody School of Medicine at ECU and the director of the East Carolina Heart Institute.

Six centers of patient care have been combined to focus on individual components of cardiovascular health. The vascular center features innovative work in carotid and endovascular stenting. The arrhythmia center includes the latest advances in atrial fibrillation surgery and ablations. The center for structural heart disease uses minimally invasive robotic surgery, and the heart failure center actively treats admitted patients and helps them manage their symptoms when they leave the institute. The diagnostic imaging center includes the latest in medical imaging, including two nuclear cameras that provide physicians with unrivaled three-dimensional views of a patient’s heart and vascular system. Finally, the prevention center focuses on the prevention, early detection, and rehabilitation of cardiovascular disease.

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The East Carolina Heart Institute is actually not one, but two separate buildings operating together.

The ECU facility is an outpatient center and also serves as the primary teaching and research location for the institute. It contains offices and research labs for cardiologists, cardiothoracic surgeons, vascular surgeons, and scientists—as well as exam rooms, a rehabilitation center, and a 250-seat auditorium.

The six-story cardiovascular tower at PCMH is the inpatient facility with operating rooms for robotic surgery, interventional labs, and 120 patient beds.

The institute’s research capabilities will feature clinical trials to develop new techniques, treatments, and devices for cardiovascular care.

East Carolina University has been a name at the forefront of noninvasive robotically assisted cardiac surgery for the better part of the past decade. Chitwood performed the first mitral valve repair surgery in the United States in 2000 using this technology. Soon afterward he was chosen to serve as the lead investigator for the federal Food and Drug Administration’s successful clinical trials on the use of surgical robots on cardiac patients. Since then, more than 700 surgeons have come to Greenville and learned the minimally invasive surgical techniques pioneered by ECU surgeons that allow them to give their patients back home a better quality of life.

The new heart institute will build on that reputation through education and research emphasizing interventional cardiology, cardiac imaging, and cardiac surgery.

“Research and teaching are two integral components [of the institute] because it raises the level of everything we do,” said L. Wiley Nifong, MD, associate professor of surgery and director of surgical research.

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