State of the Heart: The East Carolina Heart Institute

At the institute, research is conducted at three levels and ranges from basic “bench-top” research, to clinical trials for testing new medicines, medical devices, and treatments, and finally to what is called translational research, where the results from bench-top research are directly applied to the patients.

“Several years ago, we were fortunate to start a lot of new programs with new technology and new ways of providing health care in the hopes of improving care for our patients. We are focused on ways to take some of the very complicated and intricate operations that we do and simplify them to make them better for patients by making invasive procedures less invasive and therefore helping patients recover faster,” said Nifong.

The construction of the new institute essentially ensures more federal FDA clinical trials will take place in Greenville in the coming years. Already, the institute is preparing to expand its research footprint with a recently approved plan to install an advanced cardiac CT scanner. The scanner will replace the need for expensive and higher-risk catheterization to diagnose blockages in arteries, and will be used both by clinicians and scientists for research and clinical trials.

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Dr. Chitwood stands with a daVinci surgical robot.

A major benefit to constructing new buildings for the institute was the opportunity to incorporate the latest technologies into their plans. Both the ECU outpatient facility and the inpatient facility are state-of-the-art buildings featuring some of the latest technologies currently used in research, education, and care delivery.

While some of this technology—such as the daVinci surgical robots which surgeons use to perform minimally invasive cardiac surgeries, and the institute’s two nuclear cameras, which are the height of diagnostic imaging—is extremely high-tech, other technologies within the institute are rather commonplace.

For example, the heart institute is completely wireless and interconnected via a comprehensive computer network. And while WiFi is not groundbreaking technology, having patient records accessible from laptops, desktops, and mobile devices anywhere within the two buildings is incredibly helpful to surgeons and physicians.

The ECU building is also equipped for major teaching conferences and symposiums. A 250-seat auditorium with high-definition projection connects to six separate operating rooms in the inpatient hospital for surgical observation through real-time video and audio. According to Jerome Fuller, director of telecommunications, networks, and special projects for the institute, the same audio and video transmissions that are shown in the auditorium can also be sent live to computers anywhere within the two facilities.

The ability to host large groups of visiting surgeons will enable the East Carolina Heart Institute to build on ECU’s global reputation as a leading destination for advanced robotic surgery training.

Its popularity is attributable, in part, to the institute's surgeon-led approach to training. Surgeons are not only taught how to operate the surgical robot from a fellow surgeon, but also how to lead a surgical team in an environment, and through a surgical scenario, far different from what they may be accustomed to.

“We really try to push the envelope in terms of how thoroughly we train surgeons,” said Fuller. “Here, we train the entire surgical team—scrub nurse, physician’s assistants, anesthesiologist. They’re all in the same room. They all see the same live surgical procedure. They can ask questions of the nurses. They can ask questions of the anesthesiologist.”

The partnership between ECU and PCMH forms an academic medical center with a mission to educate physicians at the local, state, national, and international level. But local physicians and visiting surgeons are not the only ones who will benefit from the East Carolina Heart Institute’s educational mission. Brody School of Medicine students will also have direct access to the expertise located within the institute.

“Right now, we are in the process of looking at our entire curriculum,” said Nifong. “The teaching and training of medical students is changing. The whole learning process is different. With the integrated approach the institute is taking, we are going to try to pick up the medical students even earlier.”

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