MACON, Georgia -- Cardiologist Mark Dorogy remembers when he was conducting delicate heart catheterization procedures in a trailer on a parking-deck roof at The Medical Center of Central Georgia.
With just two labs where a heart doctor could search for blockages in a patient's blood vessels, the hospital resorted to adding the "temporary" space that lasted years, closing in 2005. While it contained all the important technology, it was easy to bump your head, Dorogy recalls.
Fast forward to 2008, when the Medical Center is preparing to open a new, 214,000-square-foot building to house the Georgia Heart Center. Among other improvements, it includes six roomy heart catheterization labs. Some of its other specialty labs will include high-tech equipment not previously seen in Middle Georgia.
The price tag for the Albert Luce Jr. Heart Institute the building housing the Georgia Heart Center hovers around $84 million, hospital CEO Don Faulk said.
Hospital officials say the new facility will allow heart doctors to make more accurate and rapid diagnoses; treat more patients; and reduce the amount of dye and radiation exposure for patients.
The institute is also expected to provide benefits to others who come to the main hospital from across the region: The space freed up will mean fewer patients will have to be diverted to other hospitals, Faulk said.
Diversion occasionally occurs when ambulances are asked not to bring more emergency cases to the hospital because it doesn't have room. But more often, diversion takes the form of refusing transfers from smaller rural hospitals, Faulk said.
That kind of diversion happens on most days in some specialty, Faulk said. It can mean a patient in the rural counties surrounding Bibb waits longer for critical care or is forced to transfer much farther away.
"We will make strides on (reducing) that as early as the next few weeks," Faulk said. The May 19 opening of the heart center which includes 60 beds plus 42 recovery rooms will free up many of the main hospital's intensive care beds and beds that can be monitored from a central station.
For heart disease patients, the institute will help the Medical Center remain among the best in the state, Faulk said.
Suellen Richardson, assistant vice president for the Georgia Heart Center, said that distinction could have been jeopardized had the hospital not added the new heart institute.
"With declining reimbursement and the rising cost of health care, at some point we were not going to be efficient enough to survive," she said. "It was probably an issue of: We do it now, or we start to give poorer patient care."
The hospital also is responding to a rising demand for heart disease treatment. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States and accounted for one-third of Georgia deaths in 2005, the most recent year for which the state Division of Public Health has published statistics. That year, 13 Middle Georgia counties were among those with the highest heart disease death rates in Georgia.
"The demand for these services boils down to aging demographics, and we're not as healthy as a whole," Richardson said. "Also, people are living longer and heart disease is progressing to new levels."
Patients with scheduled procedures at the heart center will check in at a kiosk and be admitted in minutes. A new patient tracking system will enable hospital staff to pinpoint where each patient is at all times, Richardson said.
The technology for diagnosis has been updated as well. The heart center's new endovascular procedure lab will feature one-shot 3-D capability for the first time in Middle Georgia.
Dorogy said, "It's a big benefit for us, because it will allow us to better measure the length of a blockage (in an artery) and to measure a stent better."
Stents are used to hold open an artery, improving blood flow.
The images could also allow more precise placement of a device that repairs a "hole in the heart" without opening the chest, or help surgeons develop a precise plan for valve replacement before surgery.
Most of the labs will require less radiation to the patient and less of the dye used to create contrast in images taken during diagnostic procedures.
"That's really nice for some of our patients with kidney disease" who have difficulty processing the dye, Dorogy said.
The new electrophysiology lab, the first of its kind in Middle Georgia, includes panels of monitors that can show many different images at once. These can swing around a patient and doctors on an arm suspended from the ceiling.
The efficiencies of the new heart center will probably mean doctors can increase their patient loads, Dorogysaid.
"I think we'll have the best technology in the Southeast and be able to attract patients from a bigger range," he said. This will allow the Medical Center to expand its cardiac research, Dorogy said, since some multihospital studies require 3-D capability.