How to Build a Heart Transplant Program in an Unlikely Place

Philip Betbeze, September 21, 2017

An entrepreneurially minded cardiologist who started a heart transplant program against the odds in the early 1990s, shares lessons he's learned along the way.

Mark J. Zucker, MD
Mark J. Zucker, MD

By 1989, Newark Beth Israel Medical Center had already been dabbling in establishing a heart transplant program for about three years.

But the program at the flagship hospital of RWJ Barnabas Health in northern New Jersey didn't really take off until the arrival of cardiologist Mark J. Zucker, MD, in 1989.

Even though it was located only a few miles from Manhattan and its major academic medical centers with competing transplant programs, Zucker saw the service line as a "natural extension" for the inner city hospital.

The program he envisioned would be integral in making sure Beth Israel thrived in an area with a poor reimbursement mix and other serious challenges.

This summer, on the cusp of performing its 1,000th heart transplant, Zucker spoke with HealthLeaders about the journey and what he's learned. The following is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation.

HealthLeaders: Why was developing a heart transplant program so important to Beth Israel?

Zucker: The hospital had already performed the first heart transplant in New Jersey in 1986, before I got here [in 1989]. We saw transplantation as one of those natural extensions to provide a full scope of services at a major academic medical center.

But the early barriers were that there were very few people with skills and knowledge about heart transplantation. The number of transplant cardiologists probably didn't break into three digits.

Philip Betbeze

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders Media.

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