‘We Set the Standard’

“We wouldn’t be able to come up with innovations for better care of patients if we didn’t have philanthropic support,” says Dr. Lars G. Svensson, left. | Photo: Annie O'Neill

Lars G. Svensson, MD, PhD, is Chief of the Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart, Vascular & Thoracic Institute (HVTI) at Cleveland Clinic. He holds the Delos M. Cosgrove, MD, Chair for Heart Disease. A native of South Africa, Dr. Svensson is a renowned cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon with a host of surgical innovations and more than 600 peer-reviewed articles to his credit. He recently spoke to Cleveland Clinic Magazine about mantras, mountaintops and more.

For decades, Cleveland Clinic has been ranked the top hospital for heart care. In that time, treatments have evolved, sometimes dramatically. Has anything stayed the same? 

Untouchable patient care. Patient care always comes first for our team. Nobody can touch the high-quality care that Cleveland Clinic delivers. We set the standard that everyone tries to emulate. 

We’re protective of our great practice. We want to stay the best place in the world to work in this field and deliver the best care. At the same time, we’re pursuing research, innovation and education, which are essential to future success. 

Are there any other throughlines from the days of trailblazing Cleveland Clinic doctors such as F. Mason Sones and Rene Favaloro to today? 

Finding new ways of doing things better remains part of our DNA here. It’s very much why people come to us. We have a mantra in HVTI: innovate and change. The great physicians who preceded us built a strong foundation for us to build on.

The status quo isn’t a path forward. 

No. Everything is changing, and we have to be better. 

After Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, he was asked: “What’s next?” He said: “Even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges.” 

There’s always another peak to conquer in cardiovascular care. For instance, we’re doing a lot of work now with AI and genetics in terms of precision medicine. 

At the same time, the patients we have to manage are getting more and more complex. That’s why Cleveland Clinic will continue to be essential. Smaller programs may fail over time, but patients who need the most advanced, complex care will find that here. 

Before you became a surgeon, you were interested in mechanical engineering. What’s your take on the heart as a machine? 

We’re still struggling to understand entirely the mechanical engineering side of the heart, the physiology and the anatomy. How does all of it actually work? 

On the micro level, we’ve made progress on understanding how the little fibers that make up the heart muscle interact. On more of a macro level, we also have a better understanding of the anatomy of the muscle that makes up the heart. Fantastically, it’s shaped like a multilayered whorl, which makes it possible to generate a forward push of blood. 

I’ve always been fascinated by the heart-brain-vascular axis. When you integrate the heart with the central nervous system, then you’re really getting into amazing territory. 

Our team also has been doing research on the gut microbiome and how, depending on food intake, the bacteria in your gut influence cardiovascular disease. 

I’ve certainly never stopped being amazed by our anatomy and pathophysiology. At least once a week, I’ll read something very interesting about the cardiovascular system. It’s all so awe-inspiring and humbling, apart from the incredible privilege of holding a beating heart during an operation. 

How important is philanthropy for advancing the work of HVTI? 

It’s critical. We wouldn’t be able to come up with innovations for better care of patients if we didn’t have philanthropic support. 

Let’s say we have an innovation for replacing the aortic valve. Philanthropy supports the research behind that, like it has so many times before for our innovations. 

We have a lot of databases that we use to track the quality of outcomes over time. Those are supported by philanthropy, too. We also learn what we need to do to improve outcomes. 

Once we’ve shown by our data that an innovation is delivering high-quality care, the next step is to share it, through publications and talks. Philanthropy also supports the altruistic part of our mission, which is to pass along what we’ve learned to others, so they can take better care of their patients. In that way, I would maintain that Cleveland Clinic has helped more patients with cardiovascular disease around the world than any other institution, by sharing with the world the way we think things should be done. 

If HVTI is going to remain a leader in cardiovascular care, research and education, philanthropy is absolutely essential for our future and the future of global cardiovascular care. ♥