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Published in CenterView on February 27, 2012

New heart failure specialist helps cardiac patients enjoy quality of life

By Patrice Guilfoyle

The Advanced Heart Failure/Cardiac Transplantation Program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center has added a physician to assist with patient care in an area of cardiovascular disease that's increasing in prevalence.

Dr. Craig Long, assistant professor of medicine, joined the program in January after completing medical school, an internship and a fellowship at UMMC. He also completed a fellowship in advanced heart failure and cardiac transplantation at the University of Alabama at Birmingham that included training in the diagnosis and management of pulmonary hypertension.

"My goal is to help heart failure patients to feel better and to help them live longer," said Long, who earned the PharmD cum laude at the University of Mississippi in 1999 before entering medical school.

The incidence of heart failure, when the heart fails to pump enough blood to the body, has increased even as other cardiovascular diseases have decreased. One reason is that obesity and metabolic diseases associated with it damage the cardiovascular system.

Long said another reason is advances in other areas of heart disease treatment.

"We're getting better at other things, such as heart attack treatment and treatment of heart valve disease," he said. "These patients are living longer and often develop heart failure after their heart muscle is damaged by heart attacks or valve problems."

Mississippi ranks highest nationally in the prevalence of heart disease, and for years, Dr. Charles Moore worked as the only heart failure cardiologist at the Medical Center. With Long joining the clinic, Moore said patients will reap the benefits.

"Certainly having a second person will allow us to be even more responsive to our referring physicians and our patients. Sometimes these patients need assistance sooner rather than later," Moore said.

Because of the growing practice of treating patients with heart failure, the American Board of Internal Medicine recognized advanced heart failure and cardiac transplantation as a separate subspecialty two years ago. Moore said physicians had specialized in that area of cardiology for years before the designation.

"Now that the board has approved the subspecialty, it has given it more legitimacy. The heart failure burden continues to be a health-care challenge," he said.

Moore said the life expectancy of a patient varies over time.

"I still have some patients I saw back in the mid-1990s with chronic heart failure and cardiomyopathy. That's certainly not the norm. The median is 5-8 years."

Many people with heart failure live a full, enjoyable life. Clinton resident Lottie Wells, 74, is one of Moore's patients who has been living with heart disease for the last 20 years. She was diagnosed with nonischemic dilated cardiomyopathy.

Wells exercises at least three times a week, walks her dog, takes her medication, and watches her sodium intake, although she admits a weakness for sweets. She received a pacemaker in 2005.

"I can see where that has improved my health. Dr. Moore and his staff have been wonderful. I call them whenever I need them," she said.

The more the patients contribute to their health care, on average, the better they do and the more they benefit from the therapies offered, Moore said.

"If patients are not willing or able to adhere to their treatment regimen, they don't do as well," he said.

Lifestyle changes are important and medications are a key component. Mechanical and electrical devices to improve patients' quality of life are used as needed, such as defibrillators, pacemakers and left ventricular assist devices.

"We try to educate people about these options. They are living longer with heart failure now from the initial diagnosis moving forward," Long said.

With Long's specialty training in pulmonary hypertension, he also will be collaborating with physicians in pulmonary medicine to help manage those patients.