For more than 40 years, Heineman Foundation of Charlotte and Carolinas HealthCare System’s International Medical Outreach (IMO) program has played an active role in enhancing the heart health of patients abroad.

Its efforts continue today as it nears the end of the second year of a three-year project aimed at increasing access to cardiology care services in Central America.

(from left) Hector Fernando Morales Leonardo, echo technician trained at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, Juan Luis Arango Benecke, MD, Chief of Cardiology at UNICAR, and Francis Robicsek, MD, PhD, Vice President of IMO, attend the echo lab opening at Hospital Regional San Benito Petén

(from left) Hector Fernando Morales Leonardo, echo technician trained at Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute, Juan Luis Arango Benecke, MD, Chief of Cardiology at UNICAR, and Francis Robicsek, MD, PhD, Vice President of IMO, attend the echo lab opening at Hospital Regional San Benito Petén

In late October 2013, the IMO program helped establish three echocardiography laboratories (echo labs) in rural hospitals in Guatemala (Hospital San Petén and Hospital Totonicapán) and El Salvador (Hospital Pro-Familia). It donated the echo machines to each laboratory and helped train the echo technicians at each hospital to properly use the machines for diagnosing patients with potential cardiac ailments.

Echo machines are one of today’s most basic tools used to diagnose heart problems, yet they are not readily available to patients in rural areas in Central America. Many patients, especially children, whose heart conditions could be treated if diagnosed, currently receive no treatment at all. By providing the machines and training technicians to operate them properly, the IMO program is able to help public hospitals abroad to more effectively treat thousands of patients and to provide such care at very low or no cost.

A cardiologist at Hospital San Benito Petén in Guatemala performs an echocardiogram on a young patient using an echo machine donated by the IMO program

A cardiologist at Hospital San Benito Petén in Guatemala performs an echocardiogram on a young patient using an echo machine donated by the IMO program

The opening of the three labs last month brings the IMO program a few steps closer to completing its “echo lab network” project, which aims to provide 14 rural hospitals with fully-functional labs by end of 2014. Since the project launched in 2012, thanks to the support of organizations like the Dickson Foundation and Heineman Foundation of Charlotte, eight laboratories have been successfully installed.

The IMO program worked with the Guatemalan Ministry of Health and Social Assistance to identify most of the hospitals in the network, which are in need of immediate cardiac care support. Prior to the echo lab openings in rural hospitals in Guatemala, the only public facility where echocardiography was available was in Guatemala City’s comprehensive cardiology center, UNICAR (also known as the Guatemalan Heart Institute). The center was established in the 1970s as a result of an ongoing collaboration between the IMO program and Guatemalan cardiologists.

New Echo Lab at Hospital San Benito Petén in Guatemala

New Echo Lab at Hospital San Benito Petén in Guatemala

The echo labs are operated by technicians trained at Carolinas HealthCare System’s Sanger Heart & Vascular Institute and UNICAR. The labs in the network that don’t have easy access to a cardiologist at the hospital refer their echocardiography results to UNICAR, which is staffed with enough surgeons to perform more than 700 open heart operations per year.

The IMO program also is working with some of these hospitals to install picture archiving systems (PACS) that allow cardiologists in Central America to conference with cardiologists in the United States through a virtual communication portal. Since 2011 two hospitals – Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital in Belize City and UNICAR in Guatemala City – have received PACS from the IMO program and communicate frequently with cardiologists in Sanger.