GRAND RAPIDS — Five years after performing its first adult heart transplant, Spectrum Health not only treats more patients locally but also now looks to reach out to people in new markets.
The Grand Rapids health system is examining northwestern Indiana, in particular South Bend, for the referral of patients who need a heart or lung transplant. Prospective patients who live in northwestern Indiana typically go to transplant centers in Chicago, Indianapolis or the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.
Spectrum Health sees potential for cardiologists in northwestern Indiana to refer their transplant patients to Grand Rapids, which for some people may prove easier to navigate than a large, metropolitan area, said Michelle Lorenz, director of Spectrum’s organ transplant program.
“Looking outside of the state, that’s actually something that we are starting to consider. There are areas in Indiana that we think we can definitely market toward,” Lorenz said.
Spectrum Health performed its first heart transplant in November 2010. The program did two procedures in late 2010 and 13 in 2011.
In 2015, after recruiting a second transplant surgeon to Grand Rapids, Spectrum Health performed 19 adult procedures. That’s on par with the 19 transplants done at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and compares to the 34 completed at the University of Michigan Medical Center in Ann Arbor.
Spectrum Health formed the heart transplant program so West Michigan patients could have the procedure done closer to home, rather than having to travel to the nearest centers in Detroit, Ann Arbor or Chicago. In the early years of the heart transplant program, Spectrum Health continued to refer complex or complicated cases elsewhere.
As Spectrum Health’s capabilities grew and the program matured, the health system began to retain complex cases instead of refer them out of the market, especially following the recruitment of Dr. Martin Strueber in 2015.
“Our patients do not have to travel to the other side of the state. We are keeping people here,” Lorenz said. “In the beginning, when you’re not doing too many and you’re just starting out, you do have to be careful. You have to make sure that you’re going to be having some really good outcomes with transplants. But now that we’re really developing, we’re having much higher numbers.”
Spectrum Health’s heart transplant patients have come from referrals from across a 70-county region of Michigan that excludes Southeast Michigan, the home of transplant programs at Henry Ford Hospital and the U of M Medical Center.
The health system prefers not to compete directly with Ford and U of M, although it has seen patients who opted to transfer to Grand Rapids, which has a shorter waiting list of 8.3 months, versus a statewide average of 10.2 months.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for patients who live in the backyard of the University of Michigan to come over here unless we have patients that come over because of the length of time they have to wait for a transplant,” Lorenz said.
Spectrum Health followed up the 2010 launch of adult heart transplants with adult lung transplants in 2013. The health system performed 13 lung transplants the first year and doubled that to 26 in 2015, according to the national Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
The 2015 volume at Spectrum Health compares to 26 adult lung transplants performed the same year at Henry Ford Hospital and 36 at the U of M Medical Center.
Spectrum Health was the only transplant center in Michigan, and one of 12 in the U.S., to perform a dual heart-lung transplant in 2015.
As the transplant program grew in recent years, Spectrum Health has experienced a “halo effect,” Lorenz said. Becoming a transplant center has helped to recruit cardiologists to Grand Rapids, she added.
Spectrum Health also has become involved in clinical trials for patient care. One of them involves a new device for transporting a donated organ, which typically has been done by putting it on ice. The trial with Andover, Mass.-based TransMedics Inc. involves a machine that allows an organ to stay outside of the body for a longer period of time for transport.
“It actually allows us to expand our reach and how far we can go to get these organs,” Lorenz said.
Now that both adult heart and lung transplants are well established, Spectrum Health may look to expand into other areas. Offering pediatric heart transplants is one possibility for the future.
“Certainly Spectrum has been investigating and planning what others would look like and what our comprehensive program would look like,” Lorenz said. “It’s all in the strategic decision and timing.
“But right now, we’re pretty busy with what we’re doing.”