Health Care

Heart surgeon Joe Lamelas returns to his hometown to work for UHealth

Dr. Joseph Lamelas, a longtime Miami resident and pioneer in minimally invasive heart surgery, is returning to his hometown in January to serve as chief of cardiac surgery for the University of Miami Health System.
Dr. Joseph Lamelas, a longtime Miami resident and pioneer in minimally invasive heart surgery, is returning to his hometown in January to serve as chief of cardiac surgery for the University of Miami Health System. University of Miami Health System

Like a patient recuperating from an operation, the University of Miami Health System has begun a recovery plan for its heart surgery program, after the November 2017 departure of a team of top cardiac surgeons.

The university said Wednesday it has hired Dr. Joseph Lamelas — described as a “world-renowned pioneer in minimally invasive cardiac surgery” — to its hospital, UHealth Tower.

Lamelas is returning to Miami, his hometown, after working the past two years as the associate chief of cardiac surgery for Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Prior to Baylor, Lamelas had previously worked in South Florida as chief of cardiac surgery for Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach from 2008 to 2016.

Lamelas said Friday he is moving to UHealth to become chief of cardiothoracic surgery because he missed his hometown and wants to leave his mark on medicine here.

“When I was called back to go to the University of Miami to be the chief of cardiac surgery, I realized that being in Miami is where I should leave my legacy,” said Lamelas, who was born in Cuba and immigrated to South Florida as a child with his family. “There are so many internationally recognized cardiac surgery programs around the country. For Miami not to have that, it’s sad.”

Lamelas will become a professor of surgery at the UM Miller School of Medicine and his clinical practice will be based at UHealth Tower, the university’s hospital in Miami’s Civic Center.

Cardiac surgery is a pillar of hospital care, and for the past year, the UHealth program has been handicapped by the departures of at least two prominent surgeons, Don Williams and Rogerio Carrillo, specialists in coronary bypass, valve repair and aortic surgery.

The surgeons’ departure led to a reduction in cardiac surgeries at UHealth Tower, leading the university to recruit Lamelas. He starts Jan. 21 and said he already has a plan for rebuilding the cardiac surgery program.

“The first thing, obviously, is to get in there and start working, start operating,” said Lamelas, who has performed more than 16,000 cardiac surgeries in his 28-year career.

He also plans to recruit a team of cardiac surgeons with different specialties, and to reorganize the operating rooms, intensive care and telemetry units where patients go after surgery.

Lamelas’ arrival at UHealth coincides with the university’s recent announcement that it will invest nearly $110 million in upgrades for the aging UHealth Tower, including resources for heart surgeries, such as five new cardiac catheterization labs and additional operating rooms.

But some healthcare experts say that advances in technology, increasing attention to personal health, and changes in healthcare policy on the state and federal levels will challenge hospitals to maintain competitive cardiac surgery programs.

Linda Quick, a healthcare consultant and past president of the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association, said that as a whole, fewer people need the type of care that only a hospital can provide.

“Frequently,” she said, “ the solution is something that does not require this mammoth institution, and I should say even when it does, like a cardiac catheterization, you don’t sleep over.”

Quick noted that Florida’s Legislature is likely to consider, once again, whether to allow ambulatory surgery centers to keep patients overnight, which is currently prohibited by the state. If surgery centers begin to offer cardiac services, hospitals will be challenged to compete, she said.

Lamelas’ minimally invasive technique is pioneering, Quick said, so other surgeons are learning it.

“Lots of people don’t know how to do what Lamelas knows how to do,” she said. “But give it three years, and maybe they will.”

Daniel Chang covers health care for the Miami Herald, where he works to untangle the often irrational world of health insurance, hospitals and health policy for readers.