Doctors at the University of Maryland Hospital have begun using expandable "balloons" -- the same technology used to unclog arteries and repair heart valves -- as a tool for draining fluid that often accumulates around the hearts of cancer patients.
Physicians there said yesterday that they are experimenting with the technique to see if it is capable of replacing the surgery for most or all patients hampered by fluid buildup around the heart.
The technique, involving the insertion of a single needle through the abdominal wall, is part of medicine's continued drift toward lower-cost, non-surgical solutions to illnesses traditionally treated with surgery and lengthy hospital stays.
"In 15 minutes, we can accomplish the same thing as a surgical procedure," Dr. Andrew Ziskind, director of the hospital's cardiac catheterization laboratory, said at a news briefing yesterday.
Since Sept. 17, doctors affiliated with University of Maryland Hospital have successfully performed the procedure on five patients there and at nearby Veterans Administration Medical Center. The patients remained in the hospital a few days for observation, but doctors said they expect patients will eventually be able to enter and leave the hospital in the same day.
Dr. Ziskind said he plans to try the technique on 30 patients before expanding the trial to other medical centers.
The balloon procedure currently costs about 20 percent less than the $6,900 charged for surgery, but doctors said the cost would drop substantially if patients were treated without hospitalization.