Franciscan Health achieves center of excellence status for cardio-oncology care

Franciscan Health joins an elite group of institutions by earning a center of excellence designation in what is a new and quickly developing area of heart and cancer care. The International Cardio-Oncology Society has named Franciscan Health as a Gold Center of Excellence for its cardio-oncology program.

According to the society, 19 programs across the globe have earned its center of excellence status. Of those, 15, including Franciscan Health, have received the gold status, its top recognition.

“This Gold Center of Excellence status is a testament to the hard work of our outstanding cardiology, oncology and Franciscan administrative teams,” said cardiologist and medical director Vijay U. Rao, MD, PhD. “This is an exciting area of study, and I am blessed to work with such talented colleagues.”

Since 2016, cardiologists and oncologists at Franciscan Health have worked together to monitor and treat cancer patients whose therapies, including chemotherapy, medications and radiation, may inadvertently impact their heart function.

“These two diseases, cardiovascular disease and cancer, coexist in many patients, and the field developed because we realized that many of the medications used to treat cancer patients can be toxic to the heart,” said Dr. Rao.

The Franciscan program staff includes a nurse navigator in addition to the specialists. Periodic blood pressure readings and echocardiograms help to track heart function and alert physicians to any changes that may happen during between these monitoring visits. Depending on their cancer treatment, patients may undergo heart function testing several times.

Breast cancer patients are particularly vulnerable to heart damage if they receive one of two standard chemotherapy drugs, Doxorubicin and Herceptin, as they have been shown to often affect heart function. Radiation, especially in women being treated for left-sided breast cancer, can also have a toxic effect on the heart.

Franciscan Health received the honor from the International Cardio-Oncology Society. (Submitted image)

This is where cardio-oncology steps in. By providing ongoing heart monitoring, specialists can address problems before they are irreversible. This may mean prescribing medications to further protect the heart, changing cancer medications, or pausing treatment until heart function returns to normal.

“We don’t want patients to have to stop their life-saving cancer treatments; we focus on how to continue treatments safely,” said Dr. Rao.

More than 1,000 patients have been monitored and treated through the Franciscan Health cardio-oncology program. In 2020, it received the Association of Community Cancer Centers 2020 Innovator Award.

Because cardio-oncology is such a new field of medicine, research at all levels, especially on the treatment level, is important. Franciscan physicians and staff have presented research and case studies at several annual conventions. In June 2021, four program clinicians had an article published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

“Given the relative infancy of the cardio-oncology field, it is critical that programs engage in active research,” said Dr. Rao.

“The Franciscan Health cardio-oncology team impressed our review committee not only with its care and dedication to research but also by its quality improvement projects,” said Stephen Casselli, Ph.D., executive director of the International Cardio-Oncology Society. “We are convinced that these projects will motivate other organizations and institutions as their own programs advance.”

“Quality improvement has played a major role in our successes with patients,” said Meghana Raghavendra, MD, hematologist/oncologist at Franciscan Health. “We have been successful, but we know we have much more to contribute to this field. I’m so proud of the creativity, ingenuity and dedication Franciscan has made in advancing the care of our patients.”

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