For the third year in a row, Northeast Georgia Medical Center has been ranked the No. 1 hospital in Georgia for cardiac care. The ranking is based on the HealthGrades Hospital Quality in America Study, an annual report that rates hospitals based on data from Medicare. At hospitals with high rankings, patients with a particular condition are much less likely to die or have serious complications.
The study analyzed outcomes at about 5,000 hospitals in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Northeast Georgia Medical Center is again ranked No. 1 in Georgia for overall cardiac care, cardiology services and cardiac surgery. In addition, the hospital ranks among the top 5 percent nationally for cardiac care and surgery, and in the top 10 percent for cardiology services.
But 61-year-old Glen Davis of Mount Airy already had given his own top marks to the medical center after having some seven hours of heart surgery in February at the Ronnie Green Heart Center.
He said the staff at the Ronnie Green Heart Center made the experience bearable.
"If you needed something, they were there to help you," he said. "Everybody I dealt with - the doctors, the nurses - really listened to me. You weren't just a patient, you were somebody with a name."
Tom Edwards, director of cardiac services at the medical center, said he hopes the three-year winning streak does not lead to complacency. "If you're not going forward, you're going backward," he said. "We're constantly looking at ways to improve."
The program, based at the Ronnie Green Heart Center, continues to expand its reach. On Oct. 23, the Georgia Department of Community Health granted approval for the hospital to build a fifth cardiac catheterization lab. "We hope that this one will be dedicated solely to outpatient diagnostic testing, to cut down on customer wait time," Edwards said.
A diagnostic catheterization is an imaging test that looks for cardiovascular problems. The same cath labs are also used for interventional, or treatment, procedures, such as angioplasty and stent placement. Some of the labs are equipped to handle high-tech procedures. One is set up for electrophysiology, which uses electrical current to correct abnormal heart rhythms. Another has giant magnets to help physicians steer catheters through arteries.
The open-heart surgery program is also handling increasingly complicated cases. "We've recruited a lot of doctors who are trained in very specialized procedures," Edwards said. "It's not uncommon for people to have more than one procedure done at the same time. When the program started (five years ago), we wouldn't have taken such high-risk patients."
In other words, people like Davis would have been sent down to Atlanta for treatment. Davis underwent about seven hours of surgery at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in February. The operation to bypass three of his blocked coronary arteries was fairly standard. But at the same time, surgeons also repaired a valve and fixed a hole in his heart. Then an electrophysiologist performed an ablation, removing some damaged tissue that was causing Davis' heart to beat irregularly.
That was actually Davis' second ablation. He had the first one about two years ago, to slow down a heartbeat that was racing up to 235 beats per minute. At that time, he also had a stent inserted in one of his arteries to try to prevent a blockage from recurring. But apparently those measures weren't enough, so his heart needed an "extreme makeover" in February.
Yet for someone who had so many heart problems, Davis thought he was doing pretty well. A professional fisherman since 1980, he believed his occasional racing heartbeat was caused by his gallbladder. "Because I would feel bad after eating a large meal," he said.
After his nonsurgical heart procedures two years ago, Davis decided to give up the fishing circuit and pursue his dream of opening a restaurant. "When I competed in bass tournaments, I used to enjoy cooking for people afterward," he said. "Low-country boil, things like that."
He was preparing to open The Warehouse, a seafood restaurant in Cornelia, when doctors told him he needed major surgery. "I took six weeks off, and then we opened the restaurant March 16," he said. "I've done extremely well. I feel good."
He didn't feel so great immediately after the seven-hour surgery. The average bypass patient only stays a few days in the hospital, but Davis was hospitalized for 11 days, including several in intensive care.
He said the staff allayed his fears by keeping him informed.
"They came in the night before (the surgery) and told me exactly what they were going to do," he said. "And each time a nurse came into the room, she would explain what she was doing."
Davis, who has lived in Mount Airy all his life and has a large extended family, said hospital employees paid the same courtesy to his relatives. "They gave my wife a room and treated her like royalty," he said.
Davis said he doesn't know why anyone would still want to go to Atlanta for heart surgery. "The Ronnie Green unit is so close to Cornelia, it was easy for my whole family to visit," he said.
Though the HealthGrades study only looks at objective medical data, the Ronnie Green center has always rated high in surveys of patient satisfaction. Edwards said the cardiac program remains focused on what he calls "the people factor."
"Anyone can build a building and go out and buy state-of-the-art, high-tech equipment," he said. "We try to look beyond technical competence (when hiring staff for the program). We have a culture of decent, caring people, and we want to hire employees who are a good fit, personality-wise, for our organization."
The hospital also seeks out people who are highly experienced in cardiac care, which may account for why HealthGrades gave it five-star ratings for coronary bypass surgery, valve replacement surgery, coronary interventional procedures, treatment of heart attack, and treatment of heart failure.
The entire HealthGrades report can be viewed online at www.healthgrades.com, allowing consumers to compare one hospital with another. Edwards said the rankings could draw more people to choose the Ronnie Green center, which currently performs about 600 open-heart surgeries each year. "People are getting a lot more savvy about the use of Internet data," he said.