Recycling pacemakers: Providing affordable health care abroad

Project My Heart Your Heart collects pacemakers for potential use in developing countries

It started with a simple patient question asked years ago: “Could someone use my pacemaker after I die?” The question was met with exploration and now a mission to provide recycled pacemakers to patients across the globe.

U-M team implants new pacemakers during medical mission to Ghana.

U-M team implants new pacemakers during medical mission to Ghana.

Small, reliable and easily held in the palm of a hand, the University of Michigan Frankel Cardiovascular Center’s Project My Heart Your Heart hopes to bring recycled pacemakers within reach of those in developing countries as a novel way of treating heart disease.

“This type of activity already goes on on a small scale,” says Dr.Thomas Crawford, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan.

“Doctors will literally reprocess pacemakers themselves and then take them in a suitcase and go on medical missions for a week or two to re-implant devices. The difference in our program is that we want to develop a standardized protocol that can be followed by any other charity that wants to do this,” he explained. 

The U-M Cardiovascular Center is designing a much larger study involving 200 to 300 patients in countries including Ghana, Pakistan, the Phillipines and Nicaragua. The trial will determine if pacemaker reutilization is safe and effective.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is currently reviewing their plan to compare reused pacemakers to new ones.

Previous research, published by U-M cardiologists and others, shows recycled pacemakers are no more risky in terms of infections, and an ethically sound way of providing health care where finances limit access to the devices costing $4,000 to $10,000 each.

In the past five years, the U-M has collected thousands of used pacemakers. Funeral home and individuals have donated the devices, retrieved before cremation and burial, to be sterilized and battery life tested for potential reuse abroad.

Partnerships are starting to thrive, as U-M physicians travel the globe to train and assess cardiovascular programs that would receive the devices. A U-M team, led by Dr. Tom Carrigan and Kevin Weatherwax, joined Pace4Life, a British charity inspired by Project My Heart Your Heart, on a recent medical mission to Ghana.

“What I like about pacemaker implantation is it gives an instant therapy,” says Dr. Isaac Kofi Owusu, cardiologist at Komfo Anoyke teaching hospital in Kumasi, Ghana. “We are working in a resource poor country and these patients cannot afford these therapies. Five patients with slow heartbeats have received pacemaker implantation. They are stable and very happy.”

Biotronik, Inc. graciously donated new pacemakers for the Ghana mission. The technology is relatively simple:  the battery-operated devices are implanted in the chest to help the heart keep a steady beat, and partnering countries are anxious for access to the life-saving devices.

“The medical mission to Ghana really amplified the need for pacemaker therapy in developing countries for those who cannot afford this life-saving technology,” says Weatherwax, of the Michigan Institute for Clincal and Health Research. “Our international colleagues recognize the extraordinary promise they hold for patients who need them.”

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The University of Michigan Samuel and Jean Frankel Cardiovascular Center is the top-ranked heart and heart surgery program among Michigan hospitals. To learn more, visit our website at umcvc.org.