Hospitals Giving Faster Help to Heart Attack Victims

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Michael Novella, 52, is grateful to be feeling good after having a heart attack last week. But he is more amazed by how quickly he got an emergency angioplasty at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

"It was less than 30 minutes, which is amazing," he said. "I would have been dead, there's no doubt in my mind. But they were pretty efficient."

Hospitals all over the country are getting faster at giving lifesaving angioplasties to patients who have heart attacks, according to a report published today in the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation.

The five-year study of more than 300,000 patients found that the average time it took for doctors to perform an angioplasty -- a procedure used to open a blocked or narrowed artery in the heart -- after a patient was admitted decreased from 96 minutes in 2005 to 64 minutes in 2010.

Doctors say that extra 30 minutes goes a long way toward helping a patient recover from a heart attack. During a heart attack, blocked blood vessels prevent the heart from getting the blood it needs to function.

Angioplasty opens the blood vessels -- often using a balloon passed through the narrowed locations which is then inflated -- and, if performed quickly, can keep the patient's heart from getting damaged by a lack of blood.

Harlan Krumholz, the study's lead author, called the results "medicine in one of its finest moments.

"Five years ago, people believed it was impossible to get this done in under 90 minutes," said Krumholz , whose colleagues at Yale-New Haven Hospital gave a patient an angioplasty in 16 minutes last week. "This study means that for any American who has a heart attack, you can feel confident that you're going to get the procedure you need quickly."

Krumholz and his co-authors said the improvement is the result of concerted efforts by doctors, hospitals, federal agencies, and other groups to get more efficient in how they treat patients with heart attacks.

Previous practice guidelines have recommended that patients should get emergency angioplasty in less than 90 minutes after a heart attack. In 2006 and 2007, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association launched campaigns to get cardiologists and hospitals to lower their door-to-balloon times to give the best care to heart attack patients.

Dr. Steve Nissen, a cardiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said these efforts to shave minutes off door-to-balloon times have resulted in "many lives saved."

Mike Valentine, a cardiologist at Centra hospital in Lynchburg, Va., said patients with heart attacks there get angioplasty in an average of 43 minutes. Several years ago, the door-to-balloon time was about 80 minutes.

"Our times are excellent, but we try to never be satisfied," Valentine said. "We're constantly trying to improve those times and get that care to our patients faster."