Central Valley hospital extends critical cardiac care with Stanford Med

April 1, 2024, 11:52 p.m.

Kaweah Health, the largest hospital in the Central Valley’s Tulare County, recently became affiliated with Stanford Medicine’s Cardiac Surgery Program. Currently, this relationship is the only one between Stanford Health Care and a Central Valley hospital for adult cardiothoracic surgery

Tulare County is among the top agricultural-producing counties nationwide. However, the county is also one of the state’s most underserved. Income and language barriers exacerbate health concerns in the community, including the already high prevalence of diabetes and obesity. 

“Patients here tend to be sicker, and we are dramatically underserved by every type of physician,” said Marc Mertz, Chief Strategy Officer at Kaweah Health.

As part of the affiliation program, Stanford Medicine has begun hiring cardiothoracic surgeons to live in Visalia, a town in Tulare County, and work at Kaweah Health. 

Kaweah Health joins eight other Stanford affiliate hospitals located in Hawaii, Oregon and other California regions as part of the Stanford Health Care Extended Network. According to Joseph Woo, the chair of cardiothoracic surgery at Stanford Medicine, affiliate hospitals follow a model where the physicians are employed by Stanford Medicine while being an integral part of the communities they live and work in.

Kaweah Health was founded in 1963 and serves Tulare County’s predominantly Hispanic and Latinx population of nearly 500,000 people. The hospital is certified as a level 3 Trauma Center employing more than 5,200 medical professionals and an eight-campus healthcare district with 613 beds.

Central Valley hospital extends critical cardiac care with Stanford Med

Kaweah Health is located in Visalia, California and serves Tulare County and neighboring Central Valley communities. (Photo: AYA AZIZ/The Stanford Daily)

Currently, the sole focus of the affiliation is cardiac surgery. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death globally. In complex cases, open heart surgeries such as coronary artery bypass graft, valve repair and heart transplant surgeries are needed, requiring the expertise of cardiothoracic surgeons.

Although Kaweah Health’s affiliation with Stanford Medicine’s Cardiac Surgery program is new, the hospital’s own cardiothoracic surgery program is not. Kaweah Health’s cardiothoracic surgery program was founded in 1996 by Frederick Mayer, the first cardiothoracic surgeon to staff the program. He continues to practice with Michael McLean, the first cardiothoracic surgeon that Stanford Medicine recruited to work at Kaweah Health. 

McLean arrived at Kaweah Health in October 2023. He describes working at Kaweah Health as an “opportunity to grow” while serving patients he described as “appreciative, grateful and humble.” 

Vinod Gupta, an interventional cardiologist in Visalia, initiated the affiliation. Gupta developed a professional relationship with Woo over years of referring patients to Stanford Health Care.

Representatives from Kaweah Health and Stanford Health Care emphasized mutual benefits.

According to Tracy Salsa, Director of the Cardiovascular Service Line at Kaweah Health, patients who have more complex cardiac care needs not available locally, such as heart transplants, will hopefully have a more “seamless transition” to Stanford Health Care. 

Woo also said that the hope is to establish a more “direct linkage” of patients from Kaweah Health choosing Stanford Health Care over hospitals in Southern California for more advanced cardiac care.

Longterm, however, the affiliation’s objective is for more patients to remain local for cardiac surgery. “World-class surgeons from Stanford working with our department could expand our capabilities and allow us to do more complex cases here at Kaweah Health,” Mertz said.

Woo also described the new affiliation as a valuable “potential for research collaboration” examining care outcomes in community-based patient populations. Over the coming years, he also hopes for junior faculty and trainees to bring educational benefits to Kaweah as part of the affiliation. 

McLean and Salsa both expressed their hope for the affiliation to inspire newly-developed cardiothoracic programs, such as thoracic screening to help detect and treat early lung cancer.

Central Valley hospital extends critical cardiac care with Stanford Med

Michael McLean is the first cardiothoracic surgeon recruited for the affiliation between Stanford Medicine’s Cardiac Surgery Program and Kaweah Health. (Photo: AYA AZIZ/The Stanford Daily)

Yvette Soto-Hernandez ‘25 is one of five current Stanford undergraduates from Visalia and is a Human Biology major and Pre-Med student. Drawing from her upbringing in Visalia, she remarked being excited about the new affiliation making “spectacular care more accessible” for residents of Visalia and neighboring farm town communities. 

“I hope this will be the first of many more affiliations, ultimately bringing better care for this community greatly populated by the farmworkers that are feeding America,” Soto-Hernandez said

Stanford Medicine has recruited a second cardiothoracic surgeon to staff the new affiliation. Minh Vu, who is currently at Henry Ford Health in Jackson, Michigan, will join Mayer and McLean at Kaweah Health this August. 

Aya Aziz ’25 is a Vol. 264 beat reporter who covers Stanford Medicine related news. She was previously a Stanford Live Fellow and covered classical music performances on campus in Vol. 262. She has also worked as a photographer for the Photo/Video team and as a writer for the Grind and Arts and Life. She is a Junior from Visalia, CA majoring in Human Biology. Her writing and photography explore medicine, scientific research, classical music, and art.

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