Heart Foundation Fellow aims to bring specialist skills to provincial New Zealand

Dr Libby Curtis has received a Heart Foundation Fellowship to work on ground-breaking heart research in France before bringing her specialist skills back to Hawkes Bay Hospital.

photo of Dr Libby Curtis

A New Zealand doctor is to join a ground-breaking research project investigating the benefit of a new heart valve procedure, thanks to funding from the Heart Foundation. 

Dr Libby Curtis, a registrar at Auckland City Hospital, has been awarded the Heart Foundation Benjamin Fellowship, a year-long training and research fellowship.  

She will spend a year at Rennes University Hospital in France, where she will join a team investigating a new way of treating people with damage to one of the heart’s four valves, known as the tricuspid valve

Currently open-heart surgery can be used to repair or replace a tricuspid valve, but it can be high risk and may not be an option for all patients. 

Clip for tricuspid valve repair 

This new method, which uses a clip to repair the tricuspid valve, can be done without open heart surgery. Instead, a tube (catheter) is threaded into a vein at the groin, allowing the doctor to carry out the procedure without the need for a major operation. 

A similar method has recently been developed for the repair of a different heart valve, the mitral valve, and is increasingly being used overseas, and at one private New Zealand hospital.  

This is the first study that will test a similar kind of repair for tricuspid valves and compare it to medical therapy. It will focus on repairing valve damage that is a consequence of other heart problems. 

“This is the first study comparing medical therapy [the use of medication] to the use of the clip. What we’re looking to see is if it’s a good treatment option for this group of people,” she explains. 

Experience at a leading European hospital 

Working on this ground-breaking study, isn’t the only benefit of the Heart Foundation Fellowship, however. Libby will also gain valuable experience in a hospital which is a European hub for cardiac imaging, her current area of expertise. 

“France is renowned for having a really good public health system,” she adds. “And I will also be working in the hospital as well as in the lab, so it will be useful to see how that hospital functions, how they structure their departments and their imaging systems that I may be able to learn from and bring back to New Zealand to improve how our services are run.”  

This combination of clinical work and research could deliver real benefits to the New Zealand health system, Libby says.  

“We don’t just need to be able to deliver healthcare, we need to be able to follow up what’s happening. Are we achieving good outcomes, are we providing care to those who need it? Are we delivering equitable outcomes?  With more research experience, I’ll be able to monitor how our service is reaching the local population and whether it is delivering for those who need it. 

Bringing specialist skills to provincial New Zealand 

At the end of her fellowship, Libby will return to New Zealand to take up a post as consultant cardiologist at Hawke’s Bay Hospital. The region has a family connection for her, as her grandfather was also a cardiologist in the Hawke’s Bay many years ago.  

She also recognises the importance of bringing specialist knowledge to rural New Zealand 

“I grew up in rural New Zealand and I want to work in rural New Zealand. Sometimes there has been issues recruiting specialists to more provincial hospitals in New Zealand, so it’s great to be able to share my international experience.  

“I want to say a big thank you to the Heart Foundation for giving doctors the opportunity to get this kind of international experience with renowned physicians and researchers, and to bring that back to New Zealand,” Libby adds. “It makes a great difference to the training of our doctors and is a great contribution to the New Zealand work force.” 

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