Fellowship has two-fold benefit for New Zealanders’ heart health

Dr Ben Wilkins’ Heart Foundation overseas fellowship has a two-fold benefit – he will return home with new skills and a greater understanding of valve procedure research, both of which will help improve the heart health of New Zealanders.

Ben WilkinsIn his one-year Interventional Structural Fellowship to the University of Copenhagen Hospital in Denmark, Ben is learning new heart procedure techniques that can be performed in place of traditional open-heart surgery for many patients.

“These procedures are less invasive then traditional cardiac surgery, meaning that more New Zealanders have potential to benefit from them,” Ben explains.

Ben also enjoys the research element of his work, seeing it as a way to improve healthcare systems as well as the lives of many more patients than an individual doctor could reach. His research interest lies in structural heart disease, which includes heart valves, holes in the heart and other conditions that can lead to strokes.

In Denmark, Ben is researching new valve procedures that will help reduce the burden of heart disease for New Zealanders.

“Many structural heart problems simply need watching. For those conditions that do require specific treatment we can now perform this with minimally-invasive techniques rather than open heart surgery thanks to new research,” he explains.

“This is a rapidly growing area of research and new technology which New Zealanders deserve to be a part of.”

Cardiology is in the family

Ben’s interest in cardiology was inspired by his dad, Dr Gerry Wilkins, a cardiologist who also received a Heart Foundation Fellowship. Gerry’s fellowship saw him travel to Harvard Medical School in America in the 1980s to study intervention as well as imaging.

It was during Ben’s training, when he saw that the use of a device placed in the heart could potentially reduce the risk of stroke without the need for strong blood thinners, that his interest in structural heart procedures began.

“Stroke can be a devastating disease for individuals and families and a significant burden on the healthcare system. This is an emerging technology where much work is needed, but I see a great potential in this type of technology.”

Ben says the fellowship is providing him with the experience and ability to perform structural heart intervention at rates that he would not be exposed to in New Zealand.

“Each year more minimally-invasive valve replacements are performed at the University of Copenhagen Hospital than in all New Zealand hospitals combined. This fellowship lets me rapidly gain experience in this focused area of cardiology due to the high-volume of work.”

He also points out that through the fellowship he is creating links with many doctors and international teaching sites and can bring these connections and research interests home to continue to look for ways to improve the heart health of New Zealanders.

The work Ben is doing in Denmark complements what he was doing at Wellington Hospital prior to leaving for the fellowship. There, he was part of the interventional team working primarily on coronary and stenting procedures, which has been another key interest for him.

Part of the enjoyment of Ben’s work is meeting with patients and generating trust and rapport with them.

“In general, people don’t end up on a cardiology ward on their best day, so understanding that seems to go a long way. One of the best aspects of being an interventional cardiologist is the range of practical tools that we can use to help our patients in that setting.”

He is very grateful for the opportunities opened to him by the Heart Foundation fellowship and looks forward to returning home to New Zealand with an expanded skillset.

“Put simply, I could not be undertaking this training without the support of the Heart Foundation. This is a big step away from home with my young family, and I’m hugely grateful for this assistance and opportunity.”

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