The number of people living with asthma has nearly doubled over the last 40 years, according to the National Health Interview Survey, and Southeast Georgia is no exception. But, thanks to recent scientific breakthroughs, there’s a new procedure that has the potential to dramatically improve the quality of life for people who have trouble controlling their asthma. The procedure, called bronchial thermoplasty, uses a tiny heating element to destroy some of the muscle tissue in the airway that contracts during an asthma attack. With less muscle to close the airway, attacks are less frequent and less severe. In fact, a recent study has shown that those who undergo bronchial thermoplasty experience an average of 32 percent fewer severe attacks, 84 percent fewer emergency room visits, and 66 percent less time lost from work, school or other daily activities due to asthma symptoms.
“One woman we treated was on three or four different medications and was constantly being admitted to the hospital, and she’s now off her medications completely, and only has a rescue inhaler in case of emergency,” says Kevin Fussell, M.D., medical director, Pulmonary Care at Southeast Georgia Health System. Fussell, along with Rafael Alba Yunen, M.D., offer the procedure at the Health System’s Brunswick Campus. Fussell stresses that the results will be different for everyone and it may take three to five months to see the full benefits, but that for many, the procedure can be life-changing, especially when medications aren’t working.
“We’re very excited to offer this procedure,” says Alba Yunen. “If, as results suggest, bronchial thermoplasty leads to fewer days of work missed and fewer emergency room visits by patients with severe asthma, then it could help reduce the economic and health care burden of the disease. Although BT is not a cure for severe asthma, it can render it more moderate and more manageable in select patients. For those severe patients, it can be transformative, allowing them to regain a sense of control over their once unpredictable lives.”
Fussell says that although the airway may be temporarily irritated after the procedure, which can cause an increase in flare-ups, the procedure is quick, painless and virtually risk-free. “We do three separate treatments, three weeks apart, to allow the airway time to heal in between,” explains Fussell. “It’s a minimally invasive outpatient procedure, and each treatment only lasts about 30 minutes. It is done under general anesthesia, so patients may feel the effects of the sedation for a few hours, but there have been almost no reports of pain, discomfort or other side effects.”
Because bronchial thermoplasty is a relatively new treatment, one of the biggest obstacles can be getting insurance companies to cover it. But the Health System is committed to making sure that patients get the care they need, and Boston Scientific, the company that makes the equipment used in the procedure, has also stepped up to help ensure patients get approved. “It’s becoming easier and easier to get insurers to cover the procedure because they realize that by improving people’s health they are also reducing future medication and treatment costs,” says Fussell.
Southeast Georgia Health System has always been a leader in making sure the community has access to the newest and most advanced procedures, and offering bronchial thermoplasty for asthma patients is just the latest example. “If you or someone you love is having difficulty with asthma,” says Fussell, “it’s definitely worth talking to your doctor, or seeing a specialist about whether or not bronchial thermoplasty may be an option.”
Fussell and Alba Yunen are board-certified pulmonary medicine physicians. Southeast Georgia Physician Associates-Pulmonary Medicine locations include Brunswick, Jesup and St. Marys. To schedule an appointment, call 912-466-5504.