Despite ongoing advances in prevention techniques and monitoring systems, heart disease remains the world’s leading cause of death. A study from the University of Michigan (U-M) Cardiovascular Center has looked to the past for a future remedy in a study that examines the legality and basic logistics of recycling pacemakers after they have been removed from a deceased person.

Pacemakers are used to correct a slow heart beat, which may be the result of a previous heart attack or old age. A slow heart rate can prove to be dangerous amongst the elderly and according to the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, one to two million people worldwide die each year due to lack of access to pacemakers. Whilst the demand for pacemakers is high, so are their prices, despite some manufacturers reducing the cost to around US$800.

“Despite the substantial cost reduction, a new pacemaker is often more than the annual income of the average worker in underdeveloped nations,” says senior study author, Dr. Kim A. Eagle.

A handful of humanitarian efforts have previously confirmed that recycling pacemakers can be safe, cost effective and carry little risk of infection or complications. In addition the new patient can live just as long with the recycled pacemaker as those who have new ones.

“Establishing a validated pacemaker re-utilization program could transform a currently wasted resource into an opportunity for a new life for many citizens in the world,” added Dr. Eagle.

Currently in the United States, most pacemakers that are removed before burial or cremations remain in the possession of the funeral directors with no need or use. Whilst the U-M survey of Michigan funeral home directors, confirmed that 89 percent were happy to donate the pacemakers to charities and humanitarian efforts around the world.

A model program

Currently the University of Michigan has created a program where after gaining families consent, the donated pacemakers will be sent in a postage-paid envelope to U-M for functionality assessments. If the pacemaker displays a battery life exceeding 70 percent, it will then be sterilized and re-programmed for allocation to world humanitarian programs in need.

“Of primary concern when discussing reuse of devices is the possibility of infection,” says Dr. Timir Baman, a U-M cardiology fellow. “However, U-M physicians have examined previous studies involving device re-utilization and found the overall infection rate of less than two percent is similar to that of new device implantation.” In addition no devices will be sent overseas without the meeting United States health regulations.

Information about donating pacemakers to is available online at U-M's Project My Heart Your Heart.

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