Doctors keep pace with heart from afar

By Michael Dickison

A magnet-like scanner transmits data from Zachary Lutter's pacemaker over the phone to his doctor in Auckland. Photo / Supplied
A magnet-like scanner transmits data from Zachary Lutter's pacemaker over the phone to his doctor in Auckland. Photo / Supplied

An innovative pacemaker not only keeps a 13-year-old boy's fragile heart ticking, it also lets his doctor keep watch on it from hundreds of kilometres away.

The device, part of a medical system introduced this year, has so far been given to 33 patients, sparing them frequent trips to specialists.

For Napier's Zachary Lutter, the youngest of the patients, it means less time away from school and - for the first time - a chance to live overseas.

Born with a serious heart condition, Zachary has had three open heart surgeries and 10 other operations, and has gone through four other pacemakers since he was 18 months old. He relies on a pacemaker for every heartbeat.

"I used to have to go to the hospital in Auckland every three months - that was a pain," he said. "I don't even have to go to the hospital too much any more, unless it's a checkup. It's awesome.

"I don't really notice it now. Every three months, I just sit on the couch and push a button."

Until a few weeks ago, the lives of Zachary and his parents had involved repeated trips back and forth between their Hawkes Bay home and the Starship children's hospital in Auckland.

Now, Zachary just needs to place a magnet-like scanner over his pacemaker every three months from home - or wherever he may be - and his Auckland doctor gets a detailed record of every heartbeat.

The data, transmitted over a phone line, includes what Zachary's heart rate has been, how his heart has responded to artificial stimulations, if the pacemaker has shifted at all, and how much battery is left.

If the pacemaker detects a problem with Zachary's heart or the device itself, it will send radio signals with about a 3m radius to try to reach the scanner and alert his doctor.

The manufacturer, US-based Medtronic, says this means doctors can be alerted to serious problems before the patient even notices anything.

The "virtual check-ups" reduce hospital visits for patients and save time and costs for hospitals, a spokeswoman said. Patients can get by with just one on-site visit a year to check pacemakers instead of the usual four.

The technology has been available in the United States since 2002, but the first New Zealand patient was given the technology only on March 30 this year, at Waikato Hospital.

Zachary's pacemaker is expected to last him through high school, at the end of which he will need another operation.

- NZ Herald

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