Heart Attack Hustle: Cutting Treatment Times to Lengthen Lives

PHOTO: Hospitals are working to cut down the time it takes to treat heart attack victims.Getty Images
Hospitals are working to cut down the time it takes to treat heart attack victims.

When Virginia Gardner felt faint during choir practice, she had no idea she was having a heart attack.

"My chest started feeling tight," said Gardner, 64, a great-grandmother from Roxborough, N.C. "My throat felt dry and I couldn't breathe and I couldn't swallow."

Another choir member called 911. And within 70 minutes, Gardner was having surgery to unblock her artery.

"They didn't stop moving," Gardner said of the paramedics and hospital staff who rushed her straight into surgery. "I'm quite sure it would have been a lot worse if people wouldn't have responded as quickly as they did."

Shaving minutes off heart attack treatment times can save lives, a new study has found. And all it takes is a little coordination.

"Time is muscle, and muscle determines whether you live or die from a heart attack," said Dr. James Jollis, a cardiologist at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., and lead author of the study published today in the journal Circulation. "The sooner you are treated, the more chance you have to survive and do better."

But time spent waiting for an ambulance, driving to a hospital and enduring diagnostic tests before surgery can quickly add up. So Jollis and colleagues created a program to get doctors, nurses and paramedics from hospitals across North Carolina to work together to streamline treatment.

"It's similar to what happens for trauma patients," said Jollis, adding that the average ambulance ride is 25 minutes – valuable time during which paramedics can be diagnosing the heart attack and alerting the hospital to the incoming patient. "We have protocols in place to get them in quickly and start treatment immediately."

Across the 119 North Carolina hospitals that participated in the program, the proportion of patients treated within 90 minutes rose from 83 percent to 89 percent. And patients treated within 90 minutes were half as likely to die from a heart attack.

Gardner was one of those patients.

"I really appreciate what was done for me," said Gardner, who is still in the hospital recovering.

Jollis said Gardner was a perfect example of what can happen when everyone works together.

"She was treated quickly, she'll go home in a very short time," he said. "And she'll do very well."

The program is expanding to 20 more regions.

"If we can diagnose and treat patients quickly across the country, thousands of lives could be saved," Jollis said.

To see if hospitals near you are meeting the 90-minute guideline, go to http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov/ and plug in your ZIP code.

Under search type, choose medical condition, then select heart attack from the drop-down menu.

Choose modify your results to choose the hospitals closest to you, and click compare.

On the left side, there will be a tab that says process of care. Click this and look at the last note in the column: Heart Attack Patients Given PCI Within 90 Minutes of Arrival. Check the percentage to find out how the hospital does.