By Joel Hall
Since 2006, Southern Regional Medical Center has been one of the few hospitals south of Interstate 20 to perform angioplasty procedures, according to hospital officials.
This week, the hospital took the first steps toward becoming the only hospital between Interstate 20 and Macon to perform open-heart surgery.
On Monday, Southern Regional officials filed a formal application with the Georgia Department of Community Health (DCH) for an open-heart certificate of need. Within the next 120 days, DCH officials will rule on the application, which, if accepted, will allow surgeons to perform open-heart procedures at Southern Regional.
Southern Regional Board of Directors Chairman Ron Dodson said that in 2009, nearly 600 residents of the Southern Crescent had to bypass Southern Regional to receive open-heart procedures at hospitals in Atlanta. Dodson, who suffered a heart attack, himself, in 2005 and was transferred from Southern Regional to Emory Midtown Hospital for an angioplasty, said there is "a compelling case that a legitimate need for open-heart surgery exists in our service area."
"The region [of the Southern Crescent] is home to 850,000 people, but not one open-heart program," Dodson said. "That's a big problem ... from the Southern Crescent to downtown Atlanta, depending on what the traffic is like, it can take 45 minutes to an hour to transport [a patient]. In February 2005, I had a heart attack. If I hadn't been stabilized [at Southern Regional] and had just been taken directly to a downtown hospital, I probably wouldn't have made it.
"With heart patients, time is of the essence," he said. "I lost 40 percent of my heart muscle in the time it took to stop my heart attack. With having it [open-heart surgery] right here off of [Interstate] 75, you are cutting down the time [of transport] dramatically."
Southern Regional CEO Clint Matthews said discussions about making the hospital a center for open-heart surgery have taken place among Southern Regional staff members since the 1990s. He said with "timely state approval" and approximately $3 million worth of capital expenditures for necessary equipment, the hospital would be able to offer open-heart surgery services by Jan. 1 of 2012.
"I think it is important to consider that Southern Regional has been providing cardiology services for more 30 years," Matthews said. "We operate a fully accredited chest pain center, and our emergency department sees approximately 7,000 patients with cardiac conditions each year. We identified the needs of the community and the number of people who needed to leave our community to receive open-heart surgery. We saw an opportunity here. This was the natural, next step."
Dodson said within the next 120 days, any hospitals not in favor of an open-heart surgery program at Southern Regional would have the opportunity to appeal to DCH.
"If DCH does not see those appeals as viable, then the DCH, within 120 days, will make their decision," he said.