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Q: Is the Watchman heart procedure going to be available in this area, and is it for anyone with atrial fibrillation?

A: Carle's Heart and Vascular Institute will start offering the Watchman in March. OSF HealthCare began offering it at its Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria in 2017, and one of its specialists in Urbana is also making plans to bring it to the local community.

The Watchman isn't for everyone with atrial fibrillation, a condition of rapid or irregular heartbeats. It's a permanent surgical solution to reduce stroke risk in people who have atrial fibrillation but can't tolerate blood thinner medications.

Atrial fibrillation is a leading cause of stroke because blood clots can form in a sack-like part of the heart called the left atrial appendage, according to DR. ISSAM MOUSSA, the medical director at Carle's Heart and Vascular Institute.

Stroke can then occur when a blood clot travels from that area of the heart to another part of the body, cutting off blood supply to the brain.

In the Watchman procedure, a basket-like device is threaded up to the heart through a vein in the groin area, according to Moussa. The implant is designed to close off the left atrial appendage so clots can't escape.

Blood thinners are often prescribed to prevent the risk of stroke, but about 15 percent of patients end up with bleeding or other side effects from these medications, Moussa said.

About one in five patients prescribed blood thinners don't take them as recommended and wind up at increased risk of stroke, he said.

"I would say this issue is a public health problem," he said.

The Watchman was FDA-approved in 2015 and Moussa said he did the procedure before coming to Carle.

DR. ABRAHAM KOCHERIL, an OSF cardiac electrophysiologist in Urbana, said the implant maker, Boston Scientific, requires a certain number of patients who stand to be eligible for the procedure before approving it for a facility and he's in the process of coming up with that information. Meanwhile, he said, "they've been doing very well with it in Peoria."

Moussa said the Watchman implant is generally covered by insurance, and patients undergoing this procedure generally go home from the hospital the second day and — unless their job includes heavy lifting — they can generally go back to work within a few days.

Fewer than one in 100 Watchman patients end up with the most serious potential complications — the device moving within the heart, requiring surgery to remove it, or it causing a tear in the heart muscle, also requiring surgery, Moussa said.

A clinical trial found nine out of 10 Watchman patients were able to stop taking the blood thinner warfarin (Coumadin) 45 days after the procedure, according to Boston Scientific.