Proposed open-heart surgery program at Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton gets state approval

Hamilton Medical Center

Hamilton Health Care System has cleared the regulatory hurdles needed to develop an open-heart surgery program at its flagship hospital, Hamilton Medical Center, in Dalton, Georgia.

The Georgia Department of Community Health in October approved Hamilton's certificate of need - which grants permission to establish new medical services in an area - to spend $5.2 million on hospital renovations needed to start the surgery program.

The move comes after state regulators initially denied Hamilton's plans in June 2018 along with those of two other hospitals - Floyd Medical Center in Rome and Tanner Medical Center in Carrollton - seeking approval for similar projects. The three appealed the decision, with Hamilton and Tanner ultimately gaining approval this month. Floyd Medical Center's appeal was denied.

Dr. Richard Morrison, a cardiothoracic surgeon in Chattanooga, is working with Hamilton to develop the open-heart program.

"Having practiced cardiac surgery in this region for over 30 years, I am very excited that Hamilton Medical Center was able to obtain approval to build an open-heart surgery program," Morrison said in a news release. "This will give Hamilton Medical Center the ability to create a comprehensive cardiovascular program at an elite level. I look forward to building this program with Hamilton Medical Center, which will be a great benefit for the residents of North Georgia and surrounding regions."

Officials did not provide a date for when open-heart surgery services might become available, but said in a news release that the program will benefit the growing health system and community by opening doors for other services and helping to recruit physicians. In the last five years, Hamilton has recruited more than 60 physicians and now has more than 280 physicians representing more than 40 specialties on staff, according to the release.

"When we start the program, it will be with the right team, at the right time, at the right place, doing the right things," said Sandy McKenzie, Hamilton's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

Morrison said he still plans to practice in Chattanooga and already performs a significant number of open-heart surgeries for North Georgia residents. He said North Georgians have needed a comprehensive cardiac program for some time.

"Right now, they have to travel long, time-consuming, and many times congested distances across state lines to receive these services. By providing an extensive range of cardiac-related services, all located in Dalton, Hamilton will improve the access and quality of [the region's] cardiac services," Morrison wrote in a letter to the Georgia Department of Community Health.

Hamilton's service area includes more than 400,000 adults. The service area's age 65 and older population is projected to grow nearly four times faster than the overall adult population, and those older adults require open-heart surgery 2.7 times more frequently than people age 15 to 64. Therefore, officials anticipate an even greater need for open-heart surgery services in the future.

Death rates related to heart disease for Hamilton's service area are 25% higher than the national rate and 44% higher than the statewide rate, according to the release. The service area also sees higher proportions of chronic diseases, many of which lead to heart disease.

In June 2019, Hamilton filed a separate certificate of need application for a nearly $24 million project to renovate and expand the hospital surgical suite. Approval for that project is still under review with a decision deadline of Nov. 4, according to a certificate of need tracking report from the Georgia Department of Community Health.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at or 423-757-6673.