The echocardiography lab at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital |

The echocardiography lab at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital

Photo for The Union by John Hart
John Hart | The Union

February gets a lot of attention as National Heart Healthy Month, but the echocardiography lab at the hospital is a busy place all year long. In fact, the demand is so high some testing is done seven days a week, according to Michele Hughes, a clinical specialist in cardiology at the lab.

Echocardiographs use sound waves to produce images that show doctors what Hughes described as “the geography of the heart.”

She said the lab does about 3,000 of the tests annually, plus about 2,800 stress echocardiograms that measure blood flow during exercise.

Dr. Ryan Smith, who is board certified in internal medicine and cardiovascular disease, explained why.

“The echocardiogram is the most important routine tool we use in cardiology,” he said. “The echo shows us the blood flow and tells us if there is something wrong with the heart or its valve structure. It’s a very simple test for a patient. High frequency harmless sound waves are sent into the body by a ‘wand.’ It’s not quite Star Trek, but we are getting closer every day.”

He noted that echo tests are not used for screening, but are ordered by physicians for medical reasons.

“Symptoms such as shortness of breath, passing out, chest pain with effort, and signs such as an unexplained heart sound like a murmur, or an abnormal EKG test result would prompt a physician to order an echo,” Dr. Smith said. “The physical exam with a stethoscope is very important and helpful. But unfortunately it’s not as accurate or powerful as an echo.”

In a standard non-invasive test, gel is spread on a patient’s chest so leads can be attached to aim ultrasound beams to the heart. The sound waves are recorded and converted to moving images that can be seen on a monitor.

In a stress test, ultrasound images are taken just before and just after the patient walks on a treadmill or rides a stationary bike. Hughes explained that for people who can’t exercise due to injury or other reasons, the lab uses a drug to simulate an exercising heart, even while the patient is immobile.

In 2008 it earned its first three-year accreditation from the Intersocietal Accreditation Commission, a national organization that sets lab standards and reviews facilities to assure they are meeting those standards. The accreditation was renewed in 2011.

“Patients should be very pleased that they have an accredited laboratory to go to in Grass Valley,” Dr. Smith said. “The quality is monitored and held to high standards.”

The lab is overseen by Dr. John Mallery, medical director, and staffed by Hughes along with five specially trained sonographers.

“We have an amazing staff,” Hughes said. “It all goes back to putting the patient first.”

All physicians providing care for patients at SNMH are members of the medical staff and are independent practitioners, not employees of the hospital.

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