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New Zealand doctor granted fellowship at leading heart hospital

Dr Becky Liao is to spend a year at one of the world’s top heart hospitals, funded by a Heart Foundation Fellowship. While there she will carry out research investigating the link between heart rhythm problem atrial fibrillation and leaky heart valves.

Young, Chinese woman Becky Liao, standing in front of a large colourful poster displaying graphs and statistical medical information

The Heart Foundation has awarded an Overseas Training and Research Fellowship to Middlemore Hospital’s Dr Becky Liao. She will head to the renowned Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, USA to get specialist heart training and undertake new research that delves further into a little understood link between a heart valve problem and a common heart rhythm issue.

Becky’s interest in the heart was sparked during her first placement as a junior doctor, which was on the cardiology wards at Waitakere Hospital.

“It was an amazing experience,” she recalls. “All the people in the department were very approachable and knowledgeable and they became my role models. And then I just wanted to really be able to make a difference in my community. It’s one of the areas of practice that is most evidence-based and I really like that.”

And it was some of those same colleagues who, in part, encouraged Becky to apply for the fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic.

“I have many colleagues who have previously been to Cleveland and studied there with their fellowships, and had such positive experiences,” she says. “At the same time many large research projects are initiated from the States. They have more experience and greater resource. Plus, it’s an opportunity to learn a different style of practicing cardiology in a different part of the world.”

Researching link between atrial fibrillation and leaky heart valves

While at the Cleveland Clinic, Becky will undertake research to further investigate the link between the common heart rhythm problem atrial fibrillation (AF) and leaking heart valves, also called regurgitation.

Heart valves normally work like doors to stop blood flowing the wrong way through the heart, but sometimes they become damaged and blood leaks in the wrong direction.

In particular, Becky will look at the two valves that connect the upper and lower chambers of the heart.

She hopes to assess a large group of patients having an AF treatment called ablation, a procedure that creates tiny scars on the heart tissue to stop irregular heart rhythms occurring. She will investigate how likely these patients are to have leaky valves, and whether the valve problem impacts on the success of the treatment.

“It may highlight the need for proactive screening and surveillance with heart ultrasound to identify and monitor valve problems, and more aggressive medical and catheter-based therapies for AF patients with this problem,” Becky adds.

Bringing research knowledge back to New Zealand

Carrying out the research at the Cleveland Clinic will give Becky the ability to analyse the problem in a larger cohort of people. However, her long-term goal is to bring her knowledge back to New Zealand to carry out further research specific to the local population.

“I think identifying the burden of the problem will help us emphasise the importance of early and correct intervention for these patients who, without it, can develop major co-morbidities,” says Becky.

“It will help us to identify the size of the problem in our population and whether we’re correct in our hypothesis that patients with greater severity of valve regurgitation are less likely to have successful outcomes with AF.

“I just want to thank the Heart Foundation for this opportunity to provide me with the resource to further my skills and knowledge overseas,” Becky adds. “It’s a really amazing opportunity.”