HCN News & Notes

Baystate Introduces Procedure That May Reduce Long-term Stroke Risk in People with AFib

SPRINGFIELD — Baystate Medical Center is only hospital in Western Mass. to offer patients with atrial fibrillation (AFib) not caused by a heart-valve problem a life-changing alternative to the lifelong use of the blood-thinning medication known as warfarin (Coumadin).

The alternative treatment is an implantable device made by Boston Scientific called WATCHMAN, which is proven to reduce the risk of stroke in these patients.

“This is a much-welcome advancement for patients who have suffered a bleed — one of the major risk factors to anticoagulant medications — and who had no other option but to discontinue their use of warfarin,” said Dr. Marshal Fox, an electrophysiologist in the Heart & Vascular Program at Baystate Medical Center.

Today, some 5 million Americans are living with AFib, a number that is expected to double by 2050. Atrial fibrillation is the most common type of heart arrhythmia — when the heart beats too slowly, too fast, or in an irregular way. When someone has AFib, the normal beating in the upper chambers of the heart (the two atria) is irregular, and blood doesn’t flow as well as it should from the atria to the lower chambers of the heart (the two ventricles). As a result of these irregular heartbeats, blood can collect in the heart and result in the formation of a clot, which can then travel to a person’s brain and cause a stroke.

“Until recently, there were no other therapies available to help prevent stroke for patients who could not tolerate taking long-term anti-coagulation medicine,” Fox said. “Clinical trials had proven the efficacy of WATCHMAN equivalent to blood thinners in preventing stroke. So we knew we had to offer this procedure for our patients as part of our comprehensive Heart & Vascular Program.

WATCHMAN is appropriate to AFib patents who have a history of serious bleeding while taking blood thinners; have a lifestyle, occupation, or condition that puts them at risk for serious bleeding; are taking warfarin and having trouble with their treatment plan; or find that a different type of blood thinner isn’t an option.

WATCHMAN works differently from blood thinners like warfarin and is a permanent implantable device — the only one of its kind approved by the FDA — that closes off a part of the heart where blood clots commonly form and keeps them from escaping. In a clinical trial, nine out of 10 people were able to stop taking warfarin just 45 days after getting the implant. At one year, 99 out of 100 people were able to stop taking warfarin. The WATCHMAN procedure, performed under general anesthesia, takes about an hour and requires only an overnight stay in the hospital.

In addition to reducing the risk of stroke, WATCHMAN has other benefits for AFib patients, including the elimination of regular blood tests and food and drink restrictions that come with warfarin.