Heart surgeon Mark Slaughter hopes he's sent his last patient up the Dan Ryan Expressway to the big downtown hospitals.
His employer, Advocate Christ Medical Center in south suburban Oak Lawn, is seeking the state's okay by early next year for a heart transplant program, which, if approved, would challenge Chicago's marquee teaching hospitals.
"We're sort of a forgotten program locally, but on the national scene we're a leader," says Dr. Slaughter, 47, Christ's director of cardiac surgery. "Why should we refer patients to these other hospitals?"
Advocate's bid ratchets up competition for heart transplants in Chicago; it would be the area's sixth program, more than in any other metropolitan area in the country. Although it lacks the name-brand cachet of its rivals, Christ has the potential to establish itself and further pressure existing players. It has a huge built-in referral base: Its 1,339 open-heart surgeries last year were the most in Illinois and far outnumbered Rush University Medical Center (254), Northwestern Memorial Hospital (169) and Loyola University Medical Center (545).
"Christ is a very prominent and well-established heart failure center," says Nicholas Smedira, surgical director of the heart transplant center of the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation's leading heart surgery centers.
At stake for all the Chicago-area facilities is the stature of being a premier heart care destination, where patients can go for bypasses, valve repair or, in extreme cases, a transplant. Heart procedures bring in millions of dollars in yearly revenue and are among the most profitable lines of business for a hospital.
Heart transplants alone aren't big money makers even busy centers do just one or two a month. The real payoff is the prestige that can attract patients for more profitable heart operations, says Roger Evans, a Minnesota-based health economist who studies organ transplantation. "It's a marketing strategy to attract additional cardiac cases," Mr. Evans says.
Christ's move comes as debate intensifies nationally over whether some hospitals are transplanting hearts without enough work to keep staff sharp. The federal government is reviewing some of the nation's 135 heart transplant centers that have consistently fallen short of 12 adult procedures a year, the threshold to receive Medicare reimbursement. If Medicare stops paying for transplants at a hospital, private insurers could follow suit.